Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

the incident of the ceramic pig in the night-time

Another excerpt from my work-in-progress, a memoir. The setting is still the Bacolod City of my childhood. The section below follows this one. Another previously posted section is here.

Seafood was served only on special occasions – juicy crabs crammed with tasty orange aligue (crab fat), halabos nga pasayan (steamed shrimp) as big as my hand that turned violently pink after cooking, and sweet fat fish stuffed with tomatoes and onions and then grilled. I wondered why we had these savory treats so seldom, since Lola also owned a fishing fleet – surely we could have been plentifully supplied with crustaceans and fish? Perhaps she was avoiding the high cholesterol content of those foods.

She was a great believer in children’s nutrition by supplement, though – she made me drink an entire plastic Tupperware tumbler of Milo every single night. It was brought into her bedroom, where I slept, by a kitchenmaid on a tray along with a tumbler of water. I was supposed to drink both. It resulted in my waking up in the wee hours and going to the bathroom in the dark. To this day I can’t look at a Tupperware tumbler without feeling like I have to pee.

I don’t know why Lola and Lolo insisted I sleep in their room. I had my own room, but it was only where I kept my books and things and spent time during the day, mostly reading. At night, I lay on a mattress placed beside a wall at the foot of their bed, right on the green carpeting. Beside me was a carved wooden commode on which was placed the “over-over” – radio equipment to keep in touch with the fishing vessels – and a ceramic pig.

This ceramic pig was a family heirloom. No one remembers where it was bought or where it came from to begin with. But it was meant to be used as a coin bank – there was a slit on its top. It was about as large as a real pig, made from white ceramic, and encrusted all over with faux pearls, rhinestones, and other glittery bijoux. Its mouth was open in a smile; its tongue was of soft red felt and its teeth were pearl beads. I would wiggle my fingers into its mouth to touch the tongue, which was the only soft part of the pig, and run my hands all over its encrustations.

I didn’t give that pig a name; somehow it seemed beyond that, for I knew it was older than I was. It first belonged to Lola Bennett’s mother, my great-grandmother, who always wrote her name in her books thus: Dña Marciana Ledesma vda. de Lacson – and naming her pig would have been presumptuous on my part. That pig looms large in the family mythos. One creased color photograph from 1968 shows me, less than a year old, pink and chubby all on fours on a bed beside that pig, wearing a toothy grin. People who see that picture comment on the resemblance.

The author as a child, with pig.

The radio squawked a lot in the early evenings, when the captains of the fishing boats would call in to report. I’d be in my pajamas lying on my mattress, dreading the arrival of the housemaid with the tray of Tupperware tumblers of Milo and water, and Lola would speak into the handheld microphone: “Benedicta I, Benedicta I. Come in, over.” Szquaawwk. “Ofelia I, Ofelia I, come in. Pila ka bañera sa inyo? Over.” (How many crates did you catch?) And so on for half-an-hour; sometimes I’d fall asleep listening to their choppy conversations, lulled by the hoarse voices coming in on the dark night over the speakers, punctuated by Lola’s “Come in. Over.” I do not know how she ended those transmissions – with “Over and out?” Something else? I never heard – I was always asleep by then.

When sleep was slow in coming, and I’d stare with wide eyes at the ceiling – or the pig – Yayay Mila would be sent for, and she would turn me onto my side, and pat my hip until I dozed off. It never failed to send me to sleep. To this day I cannot sleep except on my side.

Milo image here. Fish and crates from here.

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a bacolod childhood

I’ve previously posted an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, about the year I spent in Bacolod City when I was eight years old. Here’s another portion from that section:

I loved it in the province. I lived in Lola Bennett’s sprawling bungalow in Taculing, close to where the airport used to be, on a hacienda planted to tubo as far as the horizon. This was during the late 1970s but even by present standards that house would look fresh and contemporary. Constructed in a gated area behind high walls across the road from her tubohan, it stuck out from its surroundings like a crystal in the mud.

The house was built in the center of a large pond, slightly raised on cement pillars above the knee-high level of the water. There was a bridge one had to cross to get over the water to the front door and I thought that was extremely interesting and stylish. I have not seen such a house before or since. Orange-colored carp swam in the pond; this was decades before raising koi became fashionable. After dinner Lola Bennett, silver-haired but still vigorous in her early 60s then, would take a piece of sliced bread and go out for her “daily exercise” as she termed it. We would walk several times around the house, tearing bits of bread off and casting them into the water for the carp. The fish would follow us around, and the water would boil frenziedly with their activity as they fought over the bread.

Lolo Maeng was Lola Bennett’s second husband; he married her when she was a widow, when they were middle-aged; they had no children of their own. I was the child Lolo never had. On Saturdays he would take me to a clinic in the city for my hormone growth shots that a doctor in Manila prescribed because I was short for my age. He’d drive his snappy little red-and-cream Renault 14 himself, going very fast down the dusty backroads with the windows down and the breeze blowing our hair back, his salt-and-pepper and cut military-style, mine trimmed like a boy’s. (I was not allowed to grow my hair long until I was in college.) “Do you think we’re driving too fast?” Lolo would ask. All I could ever answer was a frozen grin. He would laugh and step on the gas even harder, making me tighten my grip on the leather seat. There were no seatbelts back then. He would only slow down when we reached the city where the streets were crammed with people and jeeps.

After I got my shot, Lolo would stop by a suki for roasted peanuts. Sometimes we would halt at Lopue’s bookstore and he would buy me the latest Nancy Drew mystery and a Stabilo Boss highlighter. The highlighters only came in yellow and were a newfangled thing. I’d shade the o’s in my Nancy Drews as I read along and the sunshiny dots spangling the pages would show me how many pages were left to read. The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries were all hard-bound, as most of my other books were, the majority of them belonging to my mother; the only paperbacks I had were Enid Blyton stories.

Back home after a trip Lolo Maeng would take a large strainer and shake out all the salt from the peanuts and refill his garapon (an empty old jar of Nescafe coffee) that he kept in a cupboard in the “clean kitchen” of the house. (Food was cooked by kusineras in an outbuilding which housed the “dirty” kitchen and maids’ quarters. It was also where the ironing was done, with a weighty cast-iron plancha filled with glowing charcoal that I was absolutely forbidden to touch.) I was the only person allowed to share Lolo’s peanuts, and that made me feel special and loved. Come to think of it, maybe Lola just didn’t like peanuts at all.

Cane field image here. Renault 14 here. Adobong mani here.

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eggs, ketchup, and “moon river”

In our creative non-fiction writing class this semester, our professor Dr. Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo challenged her eight students to come up with CNF narratives. These could be memoirs, travel writing, or other forms; we had to “pitch” our ideas to her first. If they passed muster, we were told to proceed with writing. PhD students like myself had to write a work no shorter than fifty pages. I pitched the idea of a memoir and have written 53 pages so far, with the work still unfinished.

It’s a work in progress. Here’s an excerpt from my chapter on Bacolod City, where I lived for a year when I was eight:

In Bacolod we ate a lot of chicken because Lola Bennett ran a huge poultry farm in addition to the sugar cane plantation. On a couple of visits the foreman gave me undersized hen’s eggs that didn’t pass their quality control inspections. I kept several of them under the bed in my room, right on the orange carpeting. Some months later one of the maids found them. She called my lola, lifted the bed skirt, and pointed to them without saying a word. My little collection was taken away. “Eggs are not toys,” I was told. Too bad. I liked those eggs, some of them as tiny as quail eggs with pebbly surfaces of calcium carbonate in raised and ridged patterns, random as nature makes it.  I was never taken to visit the poultry farm again after that.

My Bacolod nanny, Mila, was scolded over that incident for not watching me carefully enough to know that I was smuggling home rejected eggs. I don’t think she was with us when we visited the poultry farms; she wasn’t with me all the time, as far as I remember. I usually saw her at bath time, when she’d take me to my white-tiled bathroom off my bedroom, switch on the shower, and try to whip up a soapy lather in the hard water which ran out of the pipes. At first I resented her bathing me because I told her I had been giving myself baths in Manila since I was seven years old. She smiled and said, “Your lola told me to,” and we both knew there was no arguing after that. I came to love the way she wrapped me up in thick white towels and rubbed me dry, giving me a quick hug before letting go.

After the egg episode Yayay Mila whispered to me, “Nugay nga hampang sang pagkaon. (Don’t play with food.) I know other things you can do.”  One night she handed me her notebook, about the size of a pocketbook, hardbound, and filled with smooth creamy pages half-filled with her notes written in flowing cursive with a black fountain pen. She opened to a page and pointed to the title at the top – “Moon River”. “This is a beautiful song,” she said. “Memorize the words and learn it.” She sang it to me in a light soprano. “Moon river, wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style, some day…” I’ve associated that song with her ever since, although I have forgotten what she looked like. I wonder if she ever did find and cross her own moon river.

I deeply admired her notebook – all I had for school were the usual ruled spiral notebooks with thin cardboard covers and cheap paper – but I never thought to ask if she could get me one. Now I know what it is like – a Moleskine notebook – and the memory of this may explain why my stationery drawer is crammed with Moleys of different sizes.

Another time she took me out into the garden, bearing a basin of soapy water. She made for a gumamela bush, plucked a handful of its glossy leaves, and showed me how to pound the leaves in the soapy water with a rock. Making ‘o’s with our hands, we blew bubbles that were strong and did not easily pop, even when poked by leaves or sticks. I pealed with laughter, and for most of that afternoon blew myriads of rainbow bubbles into being, sending them down the garden path and up into the air to bounce in the light, as Yayay Mila beamed.

Mila also took care of feeding me. I was fed – usually with scrambled or sunny-side up eggs for breakfast, for lunch and dinner fried chicken and rice, no ketchup – in the “clean kitchen” off the dining area, which was furnished with 1950s-style folding metal chairs with red leather seats – a set of four – and a matching table. That kitchen was painted white and was always very very clean, since nothing was actually cooked there. That room glows in my mind, always flooded with light, because a screen door at one end let sunshine in during the day. Through it I could see coconut trees, ornamental plants, and the Bermuda grass of lola’s well-kept lawn. Green and white and brown are the colors I associate with Bacolod – the colors of sun and earth and garden and fried chicken.

Nowadays I can’t get enough ketchup.

Images: Egg in hand here. Ketchup here. Gumamela (hibiscus) here.

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the happy feet tales: baby steps

Once upon a time, in a big city on one of the big islands of a tropical archipelago close to the equatorial belt where the best coffee in the world grows, there lived a pair of feet.

They were happy feet.

The happy feet loved to walk. Oh, how they could walk! The right happy foot and the left happy foot would take turns being in front, one after the other, walking around the city, getting from one place to another, doing what they were made to do.

But the happy feet were attached to the ankles of a lazy writer who stayed indoors for weeks on end, her bottom growing roots into her armchair as she typed boring articles and surfed the Intarwebz for hours and hours.

The happy feet didn’t get to go out much. That made them sad.

One day the lazy writer’s doctor-classmate-from-school said: You must exercise. I recommend walking. Everyday.

But how, the lazy writer asked.

Baby steps, he said. Take baby steps.

One day, the lazy writer put on a pair of wooden sandals. They were also called “Happy Feet“. The lazy writer’s happy feet loved them because they were light, which meant they could move faster.

They were cool, so the happy feet would not feel hot even on a blazing summer day.

They were open, and the happy feet loved that best of all! Because that meant the happy feet’s toes could wiggle and jiggle and wriggle like toes love to do.

The lazy writer took a cab to work because she was late for a meeting, as she usually was. On her way back home, she remembered her doctor-classmate-from-school’s advice. Baby steps, she told herself. I will walk home.

The happy feet were so excited!

The right happy foot and the left happy foot took turns taking baby steps, one in front of the other, walking towards home, as their toes wiggled and jiggled and wriggled with joy.

They walked dusty gray pavements, but they didn’t mind; there were many things to see along the way.

The happy feet met a plant that grew close to the ground. Its stalk and leaves were very green and they reached out to passing feet. Clip-clop, clip-clop, went the happy feet in the wooden sandals past the plant-in-the-pavement.

Along the way there was a sign for the lazy writer’s favorite energy drink on the facade of a sari-sari store in an old house. Beside the store was an old church. It had red-painted walls. Clip-clop, clip-clop went the happy feet past the store-in-a-house.

When the happy feet first set out, the sun was hidden behind gray clouds. After a while, the sun came out. It shone on the lazy writer’s head. A tall tree’s leaves glowed bright green against the sun, making the lazy writer squint and blink. Clip-clop, went the happy feet past the tree-in-sunlight.

They passed the site of an old racetrack. Once there were loud fans cheering race horses on. Now there were no more fans, no more horses, and no more track. Big noisy construction machines had leveled the place into the ground. Clip-clop, went the happy feet past the once-a-racetrack.

The happy feet met another plant. It was growing in a large metal can that once held infant formula, but now had holes punched with nails all over its bottom while inside it was soil from the old racetrack. The plant was healthy. Its leaves were pretty. Clip-clop, went the happy feet past the plant-in-a-can.

They rounded a corner and saw a big concrete horse’s head. It once sat on the gate in front of the old racetrack. Folks had taken the head down, cleaned it, and put it on a pedestal covered with tiles. This was so that people would always remember the old racetrack. The happy feet knew they were near home. Clip-clop, they went, taking baby steps a little bit faster, past the horse’s-head-marker.

Before them was a long stretch of road. Green tricycles lined up under big old mango trees wrapped in a rainbow, waiting to take passengers where they wanted to go. The drivers asked the lazy writer if she wanted to take a ride. No, thank you, she said. I’ll keep on walking. Clip-clop, went the happy feet past the tricycles-in-rainbow.

At last they came to their street. Close to the corner were two fighting-cock farms. Inside the red gate and the blue gate were many scratch pens of wood, like triangles set into the ground. There were also tall fly pens of wood and plastic mesh. There were many fighting cocks, crowing tik-ti-laok. The happy feet knew they were very near home. Clip-clop they went past the cockpits-in-city.

At last the happy feet were home! The lazy writer was happy too. She had taken baby steps to exercise and it wasn’t bad. It felt very good. And she saw a lot of interesting things along the way. She decided to take a walk more often. The happy feet were glad they got to do what they were made to do. And the toes wiggled and jiggled and wriggled for joy.

~ The End ~

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life. it just keeps on happening.

Ooookay. So Plan A didn’t work out as well as I hoped.

Alright, so it sucked. Big time.

This is me going over Plan A and seeing all the holes in it that I didn’t before. Duh. *smacks forehead, reaches for pint of choco-chip mint frozen yogurt*

Well, I am not your intrepid fixer-upper-of-messes for nothing – even messes that I didn’t create by myself. That’s my job description. Now we roll up our sleeves, do damage control, and get back on track.

Goals in life are essential to set the direction for the decisions and actions that we make. It’s one of those things everyone is supposed to know, like knowing that peanut butter goes between two pieces of bread and not on both sides of one piece of bread.

So we make plans and execute them. But real life is not hazard-free – on the contrary. Along the way obstacles appear to gang aft agley even the best-laid plans.

In that case, don’t panic. Sometimes we see the snags ahead of us on the road and can adjust before we hit them. Other times, we’re walloped with a huge branch to the cranium and  we didn’t see it coming because we had stars in our eyes or we didn’t have that one more cup of coffee before setting out on the next stage of the journey or because we thought, this time it’s going to be different, it’s going to be fine, it’s going to be better than it was before.

But that’s life – it happens. Just like shit.

I know I have a Plan B in here somewhere… *rummages in handbag*

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life. it happens.

It’s been a while since my last post – around six months – and much has happened since then. A reunion. A reconciliation. A realization. A dream rekindled, goals to strive for, a future to build.

At one of my favorite places on earth – the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. (5 July 2009)

Life happened. We’ll catch up on it soon.

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barack obama: the audacity of hope

Some years after the publication of his first book, Dreams from my Father, United States president Barack Obama followed up with Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, written when he was Illinois state senator and published in 2006.

Here are his philosophical thoughts on how United States should be run, which direction it should go for the future, what shape its foreign policy should take, and other musings on politics, faith, and family.

Obama is convinced that, among many other things, America needs to improve its educational programs in science and mathematics, find alternative sources of energy to ease dependence on foreign sources of oil, and inculcate a work-life balance attitude so that stressed families can cope with the pressures of daily life without burning out.

The book is well-researched; Obama’s reflections and recommendations are clear-headed and logical. Though his own personal beliefs may impact his view of American national issues, he acknowledges that his stances may be “misguided” and that other options are possible.

For example, his opposition to gay marriage is faith-based; yet, he declares that “…it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights.” Fence-sitting? Or a willingness to listed to the other side and seek a compromise acceptable to the majority, if not all?

Throughout the text, there pervades a spirit of tolerance, open-mindedness, understanding, love, and yes, hope and change, those two keywords of his campaign. But these are no mere catchphrases; Obama believes in these virtues, and that through them the United States will overcome its problems and become stronger and better.

He explains where the title of the book comes from. Reflecting upon the life stories of the men and women he met in his work as a community organizer, legislator, and senator, those lives full of struggles and hardship borne with “a relentless optimism”, he says

It brought to mind a phrase that my pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., had once used in a sermon.

The audacity of hope.

That was the best of the American spirit, I thought – having the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict; the gall to believe that despite personal setbacks, the loss of a job or an illness in the family or a childhood mired in poverty, we had some control – and therefore responsibility – over our own fate.

It was that audacity, I thought, that joined us as one people. It was that pervasive spirit of hope that tied my own family’s story to the larger American story, and my story to those of the voters I sought to represent.

It remains to be seen, now that he is president of the world’s only superpower, whether he will hew to the philosophy he has sketched out here, or deviate to follow party lines, give in to pressure from other interests, or compromise to achieve desired results.


This is so far my favorite portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama. Taken at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex in Washington, 23 March 2009. Reuters/Jason Reed.

The book is a must-have. For here we see the character of the man leading the United States and influencing the policies of a great many other countries. Here is his map for the future. Here we see one man’s vision for his country and his dream for stability, freedom, and, yes – world peace.

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barack obama: dreams from my father

When still a law student in 1995, United States President Barack Obama penned the memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, “in the wake of some modest publicity” he says, as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.

Born to a white American mother and black father from Kenya, Obama, while growing up, struggled with  issues stemming from his multi-racial descent and from his father’s absence from his life.

As an adult, he established contact with his Kenyan relatives, who told him somewhat of their family history. But it wasn’t until after Obama visited Kenya, met other family members, and walked upon the soil of his ancestors that he achieved closure and a sense of resolution to his identity crisis.

It’s a wonderful book, written in a sensitive and lyrical manner, glowing in its honesty and simplicity, showcasing Obama’s considerable talents as a writer:

I watched these nimble hands stitch and cut and weave, and listened to the old woman’s voice roll over the sounds of work and barter, and for a moment the world seemed entirely transparent. I began to imagine an unchanging rhythm of days, lived on firm soil where you could wake up each morning and know that all was how it had been yesterday, where you saw how the things that you used had been made and could recite the lives of those who had made them and could believe that it would all hang together without computer terminals or fax machines.

Some years ago, I became interested in memoirs and other forms of biographical narrative  as an aspect of non-fictional creative writing. On my shelves are the life stories of individuals from varied walks of life, from English royalty to Japanese courtiers.

It’s interesting to learn about their different motivations, likes and dislikes, priorities, fears, loves – all the things that shaped and influenced them to become what they are.

Dreams from My Father is not merely a welcome addition to my collection of memoirs, a literary trophy to display on the shelf telling me about one man’s journey to discover himself. Unlike the other biographies I’ve read, it had a profound effect on me: that of forcing me to confront my own issues of identity and my relationship with my parents, especially my father. Even past middle age, I still don’t have the courage to explore the hidden recesses of my mind where childhood memories too painful to examine have been bricked up behind mentally-constructed walls.

Obama’s exploration of these issues in his own life and his decision to reveal them to the world show his strength of character and courage of conviction.

In 2006, when serving as the senator of Illinois, Obama wrote another book, Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, which, like Dreams, topped the New York Times bestseller list.

I look forward to more books by this author, wondering if, as president of the most powerful nation in the world, he will still have the time and opportunity to write. I hope he makes the time to do so. I hope we don’t have to wait until after his presidency to enjoy another book by this man who is now one of the world’s foremost leaders and one of the literary world’s bright new lights.

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elizabeth gilbert: eat, pray, love

This is another of those books that I didn’t get when it first came out in 2006. I’ve always been kontra-pelo when it comes to trends – going against the flow – and I’m suspicious of whatever’s been declared a “best-seller”.  Who gets to say what’s hot or not?

But, seeing nothing else of interest at the bookstore, I picked up a paperback copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, and Love, without any expectations, and just settled in for a succession of letters forming words and coherent thoughts to imprint themselves on my retinas.

I was surprised that it was good.

There have been many accounts of both men and women – usually Westerners, the Americans and the British – going on journeys to exotic places to “find themselves” or achieve spiritual enlightenment. I find it hard to relate to such stories, though I enjoy reading them for the “travelogue” part. It isn’t in the Filipino culture to spend sums of money on travel for such esoteric reasons. We’re too busy trying to survive.

But that’s what makes multi-cultural interactions interesting. People are a product of their culture. It seems that it’s the Western orientation to go looking for something undefinable, something missing, something they will recognize only when they see or experience it.

Writer Liz Gilbert’s account of her own journey brings it down to a personal level, and the honesty of her story shines true. A failed marriage and a shattered relationship pushes her to put her life on hold for a year as she travels to Italy to learn the language and eat her way across the country; to India to meditate for several months in an ashram; and to Indonesia to make friends, influence people, and find love and happiness.

On a technical level, it is well-written. The net of words that Gilbert weaves is taut and shimmering; it is a pleasure to be caught up in it. From a communication perspective, it’s a look at both intra-personal and inter-personal communication practice, with a hefty dollop of intercultural insights.

On a deeper level, it is an intriguing story of how one woman manages the conflicts in her life in her own way and finds healing. It’s the tale of a Gogirl, empowered, confident, and happy.

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they called me “walking encyclopedia”.

I was called this in high school, along with worse names. It had something to do with my love for books, how I would rather curl up in the stacks in the Pasay City Adventist Academy library, reading what were called “mission stories”, ’50s books on feminine deportment and hygiene with quaint sketches on how to properly put on a brassiere, and everything that I could find on ancient Egypt, while my classmates were playing volleyball and gossiping and forging strong relationships that for some remain to this day.

I’ve always been a loner. I’m not anti-social – I have hundreds of acquaintances, a great many friends, and a few very close ones. But I often preferred to spend my time reading rather than doing something else. My relationships were with fictional or historical characters, with facts and romance and adventure, and with the fancies of my own imagination.

Here are some of the books on my bedside table. Most of them I read in 2008.

They shouldn’t be stacked up on my night stand like this. They should be in the bookcases in the living room. But there isn’t any more room on the shelves, where books are crammed two-deep. Others are piled against the wall.

The books used to be in the living room, but now they have invaded my bedroom, sprouting against the walls like fungi.


This stack rests under the a/c in my bedroom. Another stack is by the long mirror next to the closet. A third one is…hmm, I’d better stop here.

Do I mind the disorganization and chaos, like a bookshop exploded in my home? No, because (one) I made the mess myself; (two) the books make me feel comfortable and somehow safe. A house without books will never be a home for me. When I enter other people’s residences and I cannot find a single codex or publication, the hairs on the back of my neck and arms rise. I am not kidding. I cannot imagine how one can live without reading. For me is essential and necessary to sustain life, like eating and breathing.

Yes, I exaggerate somewhat. But I think of my worst nightmares, my greatest fears, and living in a world without books is close to the top of the list.

We are fortunate to live in a country where the press is (relatively) free and the Internet is uncensored and there are many bookstores that offer a wide assortment from around the world. There are places on this planet where there are no books, or what they have is heavily censored and many other titles are suppressed, where the Internet and publications are fiercely monitored by state-appointed censors who block websites or black out nude people’s private parts on magazine pages with a marker.

There are places on this planet where women are not taught to read.

There are places on this planet where no one can read.

Let’s not waste our freedom to access information.

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