After Zen, the laundry

About three weeks ago, we lost our one and only household help. The caregiver of her four-year-old boy suddenly could no longer take care of him, and when she tried to enroll him in kindergarten he was deemed too young (and rightly so). 

Luckily, I find myself in between book projects, so aside from this column, I have no major writing commitments for a few weeks. My husband Kidlat is a freelance photographer and filmmaker, so we both have time to be at home. 

At first, the daily cycle of preparing three meals a day, dishwashing, bathing the children, etcetera, was a shock to the system. Doing all the things needed to keep the house running on a daily basis took so much time. Being a “homemaker” truly is a full-time job! 

When I realized how time-consuming all these necessary, quotidian tasks were, I had a first-hand appreciation of the impact the introduction of the washing machine must have had on every female life. Like a housewife in the 1950s, I suddenly appreciated the fact that I don’t have to do the laundry by hand (but I would kill for a dishwasher right now). Suddenly, you have a bit of extra time from the otherwise relentless pace of keeping a household from falling apart. What does one do with that extra time? Read a book? Take a night class or continuing adult education? Paint watercolor flowers? 

As Kidlat and I dove into the “art of daily living”, I noticed something else. I consider myself to be pretty well-bonded with my kids, and I thought I knew them pretty well. But being at home with them 24/7 showed me how much I was missing. As I went my way, cooking breakfast/lunch/dinner, washing dishes, or vacuuming the carpets, I noticed that my four- and two-year-old were engaged in continuous and (mostly) joyful and creative play. They made forts out of sofa cushions and blankets. They pretended to be baby wolves, or Mimi would be the puppy and her Kuya Kalinaw her owner. They created a roomy first class airplane seat for me, and they served me pretend wine and steak. When we realized they couldn’t watch The Incredibles 2 at the cinema because it is rated PG, Kidlat made a “home theater” for them—a tent made out of several bed sheets, a hammock suspended underneath it, with just enough space to view our TV. For the first time, we watched the movie Ice Age as a family, complete with bowls of popcorn (and free refills!). 

It makes me so happy to see my two little ones playing together and getting along. I enjoy hearing their funny stories, Mimi’s “character voice” when creating dialogue with her brother, listening to and witnessing their endless flow of ideas. Most of all, I love the moments when we all laugh together at something we find funny. (Last night, we laughed when Kidlat fell asleep in the middle of reading Cat in the Hat out loud.) The sound of that laughter is a balm for the aches and worries we parents harbor. When we laugh together like that, joy bubbles up inside us, overflows, and holds us in a safe, warm embrace. Each of us is different from one another, yet we are one. We truly are a family.

These realizations came at the same time I started hearing about children being taken away from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, which President Trump claims is a tactic for deterring future illegal immigration. Until now, I cannot watch the news, but you would have to live in a bubble (or get off social media) not to know about these horrific events. I honestly didn’t think anything worse could happen than what is taking place in the Philippines, our children getting shot and murdered for no reason except a madman’s whim. That in itself is bad enough. But to take children as young as nine months old away from their parents… Well, that is another level of cruelty, reminiscent of another unthinkable time in our history—the methodical extermination of the Jews during World War II. 

The horror we are made to witness via 24-hour news channels and the Internet made me hug my babies closer and tighter. Every kiss on their soft, downy cheeks, every utterance of “I love you”, took on a bittersweet quality. I expressed gratitude to be living a life of relative ease, a life I don’t have to flee across a border from. I thanked God for giving me my babies at the ripe old ages of 40 and 42—they bring unbelievable light, laughter and joy into my life. I thanked God for the endless rain, which allowed us to cozy up together in our comfortable home. My heart broke at the thought of every child ripped from its mother’s or father’s arms, and I sent prayers of love and healing to them every time I remembered. But I also felt that one of the best acts I could do to honor those broken lives was to cherish rather than rue my normal, “boring” every day, to enjoy the meditative effect of washing dishes or putting away clean, folded clothes, to hold those I love tightly in my arms and in my heart, to open my arms wide to the life I am privileged to live. 

I am free. I still have the freedom to speak up for what I believe in, what I stand for and against. In my 44 years on the planet, I have lived through Martial Law, witnessed the downfall of a dictator, only to witness the return of strongman rule 30 years later. If there is one thing I am learning at this very moment, it is the fact that nothing ever stays the same. I rile against the refusal of people to learn from the past, only to hear that knowingness inside me whisper, “Well, Earth is a school. Look back at the history of man, at how we learn and grow only to fall and learn again. The only teacher is experience, and every soul comes to this plane and this planet to learn what it has to.” Somehow, the fact that you feel outrage or fear at what is happening is important. How we respond matters on all levels of being. Whether you decide to become an activist on the front lines of protest or create a harmonious home life for the humans you are raising, both responses are valid. And should you choose apathy, to bury your head in the sand, know that this is a futile act—Life will do what it will, give you what you need to experience, teach you what you need to learn. 

“After Zen (enlightenment), the laundry,” is a proverb that goes deeper than the human necessity to address the mundanities of life after Truth. It is a reminder that when we are truly one with All That Is, we can feel the rapture that comes from being in awe of the sheer beauty that exists in everything, while in the midst of laundry, attending to one’s children with soapy hands.