Eskinita: How living in less space can make your life more fulfilling

Dark. Narrow. Uneven. Convoluted. Scary. Necessary. Full of life! The cries ring out revealing the fact that people want to connect with you: “Hello.” “Good morning.” “Makiraan po!” “Where are you going?” “Where do you live?” Eskinita are the lifeblood of Pingkian, the area in which I live. You may not notice them if you aren’t previously aware their presence because it doesn’t even seem like anyone can fit down them. But without them, life in Pingkian couldn’t go on, and understanding this can help make your life more fulfilling.

Eskinita is a word that always reminds me of the English word “skinny,” perhaps because that’s what they are. In reality, it comes from the Spanish word meaning “corner.” Since land is at a premium, in perhaps the most densely-populated area of the world, houses are built as close to the property line as possible. The spaces in between are the eskinita. Pingkian is by no means the only place where this happens. I have walked eskinita in Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi. Because houses are so small, life is lived on eskinita. Without eskinita no one could get to their house. No one could go to work or school in the morning. But eskinta is more than simply a means to and end.

Eskinita is stepping over the curb then three steps down. There is an initial sense of invading someone’s privacy when you first enter, realising that people’s homes front, not onto the street, but onto the eskinita. Scootch over to the side as someone passes by. People pass carrying large water jugs. The sound of an engine warns of an approaching motorcycle, making one wonder how it can even navigate! Stopping at the crossroads to sure we each know where the other one is going before moving on. Laundry tubs hang ready outside doorways. A cement bench outside a home waits for someone to pass the day sitting there. An open door swings out into the eskinita temporarily blocking my passage. Two young boys sit in the corner playing Mobile Legends on their cellphones. A lady in an alcove buys something from one of the many variety stores in the area. Many people set up a small store — or sell things like Avon or Tupperware — in order to help make ends meet. Strings of sachets containing every known liquid hang from the ceiling, drinks of all kinds, ice cream if you are lucky. A vendor walks by, his bucket filled with foods prepared earlier that day and suitable for snacking on. A friend used to sell banana-que, which is a deep-fried banana, coated with caramelized brown sugar on a BBQ stick. Delicious! Having walked each one everyday, my friend was a eskinita expert. A bicycle, loaded with wares, is stopped in the middle as a woman decides whether or not to buy a piece of chain –  to use a leash perhaps? – a kargador waiting patiently to pass puts his load down; me, less patient, finding a way through.

Eskinita is bright blue PVC water pipes wind their ways along the ground, turning suddenly into the various houses — sometimes ending suddenly; cut off for who knows what reason? Rows of water meters silently recording consumption — when they are spinning fast it means a leak somewhere, when stopped it means they are turned off to save water from leaking. Dodging powerlines — more like interior wires strung up rather haphazardly, often just at head height — turns into an artform that you didn’t think you would ever need to master. Canals, or drainage ditches, sometimes along the edge, sometimes down the middle, sometimes non-existent carry water from various sources somewhere else. Videoke booms from somewhere near, accompanied by a voice — sometimes talented, often merely energetic.

Eskinita is sometimes cement, sometimes asphalt, and sometimes spongy ground beside a stream of black runoff that runs outside my friend Mang Pio’s house — evidence of the clogged drainage pipes hidden below. Mang Pio owns a fairly large chuck of land in the middle of a gaggle of houses. At 90 years old he is a fount of stories and jokes. I stop and chat with Edgar, who is doing laundry in a couple of 5-gallon pails in front of his place. Mang Pio, in his kindness, has allowed Edgar to stay on his property. He has a small place that the word “lean-to” wouldn’t adequately describe — more a hodge podge of various chunks of wood, plastic, and other light materials all precariously positioned to provide some semblance of shelter. Many homes along the eskinita are not like his, however. More and more I see multi-storey concrete structures, complete with all the comforts of home.

Eskinita is where animals abound. Dogs. Cats. Rats. Roosters. Chickens. Even the occasional rabbit. Sometimes caged but usually running free. The cats are perhaps the most resilient. Many times they may have seemingly fatal injuries but yet there they are, day after day, ekeing out a living. I guess that’s why they are said to have nine lives! The roosters (in reality fighting cocks) are the most cared for, receiving special feeds, daily grooming, and love from their owners.

Eskinita is where people are. Children playing hopscotch. Retirees passing the day outside their homes. Friends chatting. Men caring for their fighting cocks. People watering plants and/or the eskinita itself — one for growth the other to reduce dust. Small business owners selling fish of all varieties. Chicken. Pork. Rarely, beef. Vegetables. Barbershops. Internet cafes. Elderly women watching the world go by. And in the mornings mothers sunning their babies.

Eskinita is missing something, however. What is missing is space. Space that separates houses from one another. Space taken up by fences to ensure privacy. Space with garages, with doors that go up, then down, keeping occupants hidden from one another. There is no emptiness. No empty streets. No empty houses for most of the day while people are at work.

Eskinita is connection. A shared identity. A life living in proximity with others.

What do you notice about your community? Why not let the rest of us know in the comments below?

Remember sharing is what friends do.

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Image is was taken on my iPhone.

Imagining what the world is like: The usefulness of windows & doors in our worldviews

Imagine living in a room with no windows or doors. You are not alone. After a while you would develop a worldview limited by those four walls. Anything else would be speculation. Of course your other senses would work fine. You may hear things outside your room. You may smell things. You may feel vibrations. You may speculate as to what your senses were telling you but you wouldn’t be certain. The group would come up with an idea of reality. 

Then imagine that all of a sudden someone else appeared and installed a window. All of a sudden your world view would expand. Not only because the window expanded your view but because you also realised that other people existed outside of your room. 

We can then imagine the changes that would happen as windows were installed in each wall and as more and more of the world became visible. 

Now imagine that a door was installed and the installer invited you outside. What would change? Then imagine what would happen if you actually went outside. How would the group decide who would go? Would everyone go? What factors would contribute to whether people went or not?

What would happen when those who went out returned? Would their stories be clearly told? Would those who stayed behind believe them or not? Would more be convinced to leave or would decisions be made to close the doors & windows? 

Some more questions arise. What if you didn’t enjoy the view? What if what you saw was unbelievable? What if you didn’t want to go out the door? What if you didn’t trust your senses or trust the one inviting you outside? 

The examples could continue on into absurdity. What if the view out the windows wasn’t in fact direct but was an elaborate system of mirrors bringing you reflections of the world outside. What if (ala Plato’s allegory of the cave) all you could see was shadows of activities outside? What if the decision of the group was to tear the walls down and live together with those other people in the world?

How would the worldview change process work? What senses would you prioritise? What senses would you distrust more than others? 

A lesson from Men in Black.

In the classic 1997 movie Men in Black, James Darrell Edwards III is taken into a room with “the best of the best of the best.” As part of their testing before becoming one of the Men in Black, they are all taken into a shooting room full of graphical alien potential targets. They are supposed to shoot the dangerous targets and save the innocent ones. All the candidates go in guns blazing except for James, who carefully looks at each scary monster before calmly shooting the “little Tiffany” in the head. Let’s take a look at the script:

ZED: “May I ask why you felt little Tiffany deserved to die?”

JAMES: “She was the only one who actually seemed dangerous. At the time.”

ZED: “And how did you come to that conclusion?”

JAMES: “Hook-head guy. You explain to me how he can think with a hook for a head. Answer; it’s not his head. His head is that butt-ugly bean-bag thing over there. ‘Cause if you look at the snarling beast-guy, he’s not snarling, he’s sneezing — he’s got tissues in his hand. No threat there, and anyhow, the girl’s books were way too advanced for an eight-year-old’s. And besides, from where I’m looking, she was the only one who appeared to have a motive. And I don’t appreciate your jumping down my throat about it. Or, uh — do I owe her an apology?”

James spent time carefully studying before going off guns blazing. He looked at the world around him to understand it so that understanding could better inform his actions.

The Windowless Room and Theologising.

It got me thinking about how much theology is done from the theologian’s office and how much from wandering about and observing? Which ends up being better? How important is listening to others’ analysis and evaluation as opposed to making your own? 

I love to read books. I particularly love escapist fiction because it draws me into a world that I can live in. I can dream while reading. I can imagine what life would be like if I were a character in the book. I enjoy people watching and trying to image their motivations for doing what they do. I also have a tendency to be shy. I prepare my sermons and lessons in isolation and them present them to people with real connections in the real world. But I realised after a while that my well was running dry. I had no more information to present and no way of finding a way forward into something new.

So I decided to study ways to better understand the world. That meant I had to study things like anthropology. I had to study about culture and society. Each of these fields has its own perspectives and theories that are useful in gaining understanding. Sometimes these theories offer criticisms of the current world. Sometimes they offer ways to better understand it. Sometimes they offer insights into how various and sundry parts of the world relate to each other. Sometimes they offer insights into how to interpret the world. It was great. It was like windows were being opened up for me to see out.

But more so than that, studying forced me to go out into the world and engage with it. I learned to observe people in the everyday environments and wonder why they did the things they did. I walked around my community trying to notice the things that I normally passed by. I learned to ask questions and listen for the answers. I talked to men on the street about their understandings of masculinity and religiosity. We talked about families. We talked about how to know the truth. We talked about their own ideas and perspectives. We developed deeper relationships with each other.

I certainly know that I gained more perspective once I got out into the real world. How do you maintain connections with the real world? How does that help develop your own perspectives and ideas? Please let me know in the comments below.

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Image by Arm Sarv on Unsplash.

What four myths do I need to consider when talking about deconstruction & how can I counteract them in my own process of deconstruction?

Deconstruction has been in the news of late — especially in the news surrounding Christian theology and practice. Christians, dissatisfied with the way things are going, have been pushing back against the status quo. And with good cause. For example, in just in the past year we have seen pushback against:

  • The usefulness of borrowed theologies to the church.
  • The Canadian Indian Residential School System and the church.
  • Gender and the church.
  • Race and ethnicity and the church.

So what’s the big deal? Why deconstruction?

Deconstruction is a push back against the idea that there is one standard interpretation of meaning in the world. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, “Deconstruction focuses on a text as such rather than as an expression of the author’s intention, stressing the limitlessness (or impossibility) of interpretation and rejecting the Western philosophical tradition of seeking certainty through reasoning by privileging certain types of interpretation and repressing others. It was effectively named and popularized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida from the late 1960s and taken up particularly by US literary critics.”

For example, I grew up in the era when martial arts didn’t exist. What we had was the karate chop. As time progressed, and as our knowledge grew, we came to understand that the term karate chop was problematic. First of all, karate is only one of many martial arts, each with their own methods and systems. Second, chop is only one of many martial arts moves. In fact today karate chops seem to be limited to striking boards with the side of one’s hand. They have also lost much of their coolness factor — I challenge you to find a karate chop in a Marvel movie! The meaning system of karate chop has been deconstructed from its dominant place and been relegated to one small part of the larger category of martial arts.

Deconstruction is a necessary process but it is challenging because it deals with the very basic definitions of “meaning.” Those raised with a concept of Absolute Truth find it hard to separate Absolute Truth from the truths that I believe at any given time. [For more of my thoughts on truth, see my posts, herehereherehere, and here]. For example, it is Absolutely True that the karate chop is a thing. There are many experts in the technique in the world today. However, what isn’t absolutely true is that the karate chop universally identifies all forms of martial arts today. The term has been replaced with Martial Arts.

I should also point out that it is important to not simply deconstruct — one also needs to construct a new system that is more reflective of the basic realities of the world. Granted this has been a rather simple explanation of a very complex topic. If you want to understand it more you will need to read Derrida for yourself. However, I do believe that there are four myths, or false assumptions, that we need to be aware of when we engage in deconstruction. Without understanding these myths we won’t be very effective in our deconstruction-reconstruction process.

The myth of the noble savage.

There is an idea that pre-civilisation was an idyllic time of peace, joy, and happiness that was subsequently destroyed by the arrival of various civilising forces. The noble savage represents the people unsullied by civilisation and is often the person that we wish we were and that we sometimes deconstruct to become. Of course, we can’t deny that colonialism has wreaked havoc on the world but to say that pre-colonial cultures were perfect is also an error.

Often our ideas of deconstruction want us to return to this idyllic time of peace, joy, and happiness. How can I counteract this myth when I deconstruct? Rather than assume that all new things are bad and all old things are good, it might be better to find culturally appropriate ways to deal with all these bad things so that our new, reconstructed world, is a better place. Even though both pre- and post-colonial times are problematic, deconstruction seeks to find indigenous solutions to the problems.

The myth of the tabula rasa.

Tabula rasa means simply, “clean slate” and is the belief that all people are born as blanks that are slowly filled up over a lifetime.

Theologically speaking the only true tabula rasas were Adam and Eve, who had original righteousness. Once they began their slavery to sin — a condition that now affects the entire human race — their slates were no longer blank.

What we often also miss in this is that while we may be born blank, the influences around us are by no means blank. We are socialised and enculturated using specific systems, languages, structures, and processes that may or may not vary from other systems, languages, structures, and processes in the world. One key aspect to military training is battle school that is designed specifically to extract a person from as many of these influences as possible and reshape them into soldiers.

Often our ideas of deconstruction want us to return to an existence where all influences are removed and a whole new set of influences are written. How can I counteract this myth when I deconstruct? We often wish that we were blank slates. I myself have said many times that I wished I was able to read the Bible for the first time again. The reality is that we are not blank slates and no amount of hoping will change that. Rather we can embrace our previous experiences and seek ways of writing into the margins of what we have already done.

The myth of cultural purity.

No one is an island and no culture exists in isolation. All are impacted by cultural hybridity.

I remember when our class on Philippine Society and Culture at the University of the Philippines read Alvina and Madulid’s Flora Filipina: From Acapulco to Manila that talked about how Spanish trade introduced many botanical species that are popularly considered native to the Philippines. This is called the Columbian Exchange. Alfred W. Crosby coined the term and defined it this way,

“In 1491, the world was in many of its aspects and characteristics a minimum of two worlds—the New World, of the Americas, and the Old World, consisting of Eurasia and Africa. Columbus brought them together, and almost immediately and continually ever since, we have had an exchange of native plants, animals and diseases moving back and forth across the oceans between the two worlds. A great deal of the economic, social, political history of the world is involved in the exchange of living organisms between the two worlds.”

On a more local scale, the church is not merely a bunch of individuals who share some common beliefs. The church is a community — a body, a building, a vine, a nation, a people — that shares life, work, and wonder. That’s why none of what the church does is to be done in isolation — we need the input of others in our theologising.

How can I counteract this myth when I deconstruct? Rather than trying to remove all outside influences, it might be better to embrace cultural hybridity by engaging others to find new perspectives, new ideas, new world views, and new paradigms that will help us to see things in a more complete and complex way. For example, if my own experience with Jesus is framed around guilt-innocence then dialogue with those who have an honour-shame or power-fear framework would help me to see that salvation is a much more complete and complex thing.

It’s also important to point out that this is a two-way street because both parties in the exchange are impacted.

The myth of cultural essentialism.

Cultural essentialism is the belief that cultures must contain certain essential characteristics. A simple example would be, “Americans are rude and Canadians are polite.” The problem that neither of these statements is entirely accurate — there are many polite Americans and many rude Canadians. Furthermore, there is no law that says that in order to identify as an American I need to be rude, or to identify as a Canadian I need to be polite.

Essentialism a form of generalisation that doesn’t take into account the differences that exist within cultures and seeks to smooth them out into some kind of manufactured, easily defined, timeless reality that isn’t really real. Reality is more nuanced than that. The example of Americans and Canadians above also doesn’t take into account a vast range of other factors that can’t merely be smoothed over, including but not limited to, gender, socio-economic position, race and ethnicity, geographical location, and political bent.

I should point out here that the oft-mentioned idea of “colonial mentality” is related to this. The term is used in a pejorative way to indicate those who don’t think in an appropriately indigenous way (which is also used often in a pejorative way).

How can I counteract this myth when I deconstruct? The simplest way is to find ways of looking through Other’s eyes. For me, a middle-aged white male, that would mean developing relationships with people different than I. The Bible’s meaning may be clear to me but is that only a false clarity? Is there another perspective I need to see?

These are some of my initial thoughts on deconstruction so I am sure that I have missed something. What do you think? Is there another myth we can add to this list?

Your voice is important to me. That’s why commenting is open on this post. Please let me know what you think below.

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