Wednesday, January 25, 2006

money matters

My mother instilled in me the conviction that I would be forever poor. Beginning when I was a young boy until well after I had left the house as an adult, she’d repeat the mantra of poverty endlessly, inflicting her fears upon most of our conversation, not content until I held up my hands in surrender. She grew up in Palawan, in one of the provinces in the south, dreaming of having more than she had. Her stories from that period in her life are filled with the heartbreaking examples of struggle, some of them exaggerated, most of them true: balancing on a borrowed bicycle in the rain, one hand clutching a basket of precious eggs destined for the market; assisting my grandmother with the patterns for dresses ordered by the rich into the early hours of dawn; walking hungry to school and not having any of the materials that schoolwork demanded because her parents could not afford them - endless anecdotes that are the equivalent to the American “when I was young, I used to walk ten miles to school, barefoot, in the snow”. She told me how she used her dreams to warm her, spinning fantasies of wealth, splendor and vengeance upon the rich folk who possessed not an ounce of sympathy for her. Fiercely intelligent, she decided that one day she would be rich and leave all the stories of her impoverished childhood behind.

I grew up as a child of divorce, in the custody of my mother. She confused comfort for love and love for loyalty, spinning in place for years until nausea overwhelmed her. When she opened her eyes, she found a little boy looking at her. Sitting in the ruins of her marriage, my mother realized that she was still poor and had the additional burden of a son. “At that moment I knew that I needed to fight no longer only for myself,” she told me once over coffee in the open-air lanai of our huge house in Greenhills. She summoned up a measure of brutal determination and entered the corporate arena. In a few years, I was studying in an expensive private school and spending weekends at our condominium in Makati’s business district. We had cars and drivers and opulent Christmas celebrations when my mother acted like Santa Claus possessed by the demon of generosity, not because she wanted to show off her prosperity, but because she knew how it was to spend Christmas with next to nothing.

Early on, she abruptly stopped giving me expensive things. Her desire was to replicate in me the very conditions that made her strong, that made her a fighter – poverty. And so in the heart of the affluent Greenhills neighborhood, surrounded by a battalion of maids and bountiful tables, I grew up poor. Like her, I biked to school, balancing my schoolbag instead of a basket of eggs. I crossed EDSA to take a bus to accomplish errands and learned how to save to buy the books I desperately wanted. She drilled into my head that I did not have the fall-back position of privilege that my half-siblings and step-siblings had. Their father – my stepfather – was a very wealthy man. She told me that I could not expect an inheritance from him as we shared no blood, and that my presence was tolerated in the house only because of pity.

“Be kind to your sisters,” she told me when I was fourteen years old. “When I am gone, maybe they’ll remember your kindness and let you stay in this house – as a gardener or a houseboy.”

She succeeded in fashioning the framework of impoverishment in my mind, with what, to her, were only the best and most noble of intentions. But to me it was poison. I struggled with the possibilities of being suddenly thrown out into the streets, conditioned to fear and resent the power of my affluent step-siblings. I alone in that house was an Alfar; everyone else had an influential family name that I did not share. In the paranoiac delusions of adolescence I imagined escaping. I created a scenario where one of the rich and famous families of Manila would suddenly claim me as their long-lost scion (“Now and forever, you are Dean Zobel de Ayala!”). But what did not rub off on me was a desire to wealthy.

Instead, I looked at what I had, at what I possessed on my own. I searched for something no one else had, that no one could buy with scads of money or with intimated inheritances. I decided to find happiness on my terms, to construct it, to live it. Because of my mother’s Soviet-style conditioning, I had the mind of a poor man but instead of struggling to be rich in material things, I elected to find fulfillment on the intellectual plane. I would never be rich, but I certainly could be smart. Released from that pressure, I began to write.

Even now, as a surprised businessman, I find myself with the mindset my mother spent tremendous effort to force upon me. In the company of rich men, I sometimes find that part of my mother bristling and wanting to slap everyone down simply because I do not have what they have. I struggle with the ghosts of her childhood frequently, half-persuaded that the little business successes I have will crumble at any time and my daughter will have to sleep on a carton under a bridge, snot trailing down her unwashed face. But more powerful than that are my own personal convictions: that rich or poor doesn’t really matter; that things are not as bad as I make them; that while I cannot choose my circumstances I can sure as hell choose my attitude; that words will always afford me something; that while everything ultimately ends in tears, what matters is that I do not cry today; that wealth cannot buy everything; that we create our own bliss.

My mother failed in her bid to create in me a person who would be motivated by the accumulation of wealth. I know that majority of my siblings, half or step, are magnitudes of degrees richer than I am. But that is not the arena in which I compete, and my will to compete is very strong. Wealth is not equivalent to success or happiness. I’ve never believed that the measure of a man is amount in his bank account or the value of his investment portfolio. The moment I subscribe to that is the day my mother wins.

Where she did win is with the most important aspect my character. I became a feisty fighter, with attitude to spare. It is not that I pick fights, but I can fight when it matters. It is the basis of my "find a way to do it" outlook on life and achievement.

As for money matters, it is enough that via my businesses and investments I have enough to live how I live and provide for my wife and daughter, today and tomorrow.

Everything else is in the realm of “nice-to-have”, but mean little in my mindscape. I do not lose sleep over things I do not have.


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