Sunday, March 11, 2007

One stroke, everything changes, beauty emerges

MANILA, Philippines -- With one stroke. As with former president of the University of the Philippines and one-time National Security Adviser Emanuel ?Noel? Soriano, or with anyone, everything could change with one stroke, a brain stroke.

Discovering meaning and purpose in the aftermath of the disabling blow is consolation enough. But translating these into beauty is indeed a graced response to God's hello. And it takes a village, a community of caring persons, to make this happen. "It took a whole nation," Noel's wife Angge said, expressing her gratitude.

In July 1996, Noel suffered a stroke that rendered him paralyzed and unable to speak. After three months in the hospital, he was brought home. His wife Angge, a jovial, brave and take-charge type, and their four sons and two daughters were all there for him. But it would take several years before they could get an idea how far their hopes could take them.

Last week, Noel, who just turned 70, held his third exhibit, "A Fisherman's Story," of watercolor paintings at the UP's Delaney Hall. This was something not quite planned, Angge told the enthused crowd, but Noel's persistence (through one-word grunts, signs and body language) paid off.

One was for sure, the prayers and support of relatives, friends and colleagues, "the whole nation," helped Noel go a long way. Perhaps not in the words and sports departments but in the realm of colors, form and beauty that has remained vivid in Noel?s mind. These elements have evolved, deepened and brightened through the years.

Former health secretary and neurologist Alfredo Bengzon, Noel's colleague in former president Corazon Aquino's cabinet, said: "We have barely scratched the surface when it comes to how the brain works." And he went on to describe how their little group of like-minded citizens that included Noel worked together in the 1980s after Ninoy Aquino's assassination and the passion that possessed them. "We were driven by one obsession and that was to contribute our bit."

Another battlefield

Noel was the "quintessential documentor," Bengzon said. They belonged to what was called "the convenor group" that drew anti-Marcos personalities from different camps and political persuasions. "If Noel could only reveal the whole story," Bengzon sighed.

More than 20 years have passed since those fevered times but, alas, this woebegone nation is still in search of another springtime. Noel has since moved on to another battlefield.

Present at Noel's exhibit were former colleagues in the Cory cabinet including former President Fidel Ramos who, in his brief speech, described the similar state of his daughter, Chula, who was a victim of a road accident. Members of the Aphasia Foundation of the Philippines were there too, to lend support.

Expressive Aphasia

Noel's condition is called expressive aphasia or the loss of the power to use words due to a brain lesion. Noel is also paralyzed in his right extremities. With help, Noel can walk short distances. He can sing some tunes, "Happy Birthday" among them, utter some words, like "One!" with his pointer raised, which could mean many things.

All his watercolor paintings bear his familiar signature, E.V. Soriano, and the date they were done. No, this UP and Harvard graduate has not been reduced to a small uncommunicative heap. Noel is saying many things in his small "silent" way. There is something so profound in all this that is hard to miss.

Noel's daughter Rinna grouped Noel's 70 watercolors (framed by noted frame maker Johnny Soriano) into themes: Soul Vision, Noel's Garden, Concrete Foundations, Landscapes and UP Chapel.

Noel attends the noontime Mass at the UP chapel every day almost without fail. Thus, his attachment to the place and his watercolor renderings of the spaceship like chapel by architect and National Artist Leandro Locsin. On Sundays he and Angge go to Fr. Ruben Villote's Mass at the Center for Migrant Youth in Quezon City. Noel has made a sizeable number of "Mass-mates" who turned up at the exhibit.

Art therapy

Rinna, an educator, recalled how her father got into the medium. "I came across the work of scientist and educator Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) that offered a whole new world of innovative, holistic and creative approaches to health and education and the essence of being human in this world. My niece Francesca was a student at the Rudolf Steiner Waldorf School. Her teacher, Mary Joan Fajardo, said that art therapist Maria Abulencia could help out."

Abulencia has been Noel's art therapist for many years and through three exhibits. "We use wet on wet," said Abulencia who admitted that she got into this type of therapy through daring. She and Rinna have been surpervising Noel's therapy.

"We hesitate to call ourselves art therapists," Rinna explained, "because we do not have the training that others have undergone. But we take courage in the thought that the simple presence of another human being for another to facilitate a creative experience with colors brings forth tremendous healing not only for the patient but also for the circle of family and friends who care for that person."

Not in control

Rinna said that watercolor could be an intimidating medium but not for her father. "He knows he is not in full control of everything. He is not afraid to make mistakes because one cannot make a mistake when one truly paints."

Rinna wrote about healing through the arts in UP's "Arts Quarterly." "The kind of artistic activity that my father is doing now is different from what I think he had in mind before he had his stroke. Steiner differentiated painting from drawing. In drawing, you have an image in mind and you just transfer that on paper or canvass. In painting, you allow the colors or light and darkness to create images and the painter only helps the images come out more clearly as they gradually emerge from the mixing of colors."

Noel and Angge live peacefully in a rented apartment on Times St. in Quezon City, a few houses away from former President Aquino's. UP is close enough for Noel's daily pilgrimage to his old haunt.

He reports to the administration his encounters with unsightly garbage or a roof that needs to be changed. He loves UP. That is where he and Angge met during their UP Student Catholic Action (UPSCA) days and where he rose to become the youngest UP president.

Fisherman's story

Why is Noel's story "A Fisherman?s Story"? The parable-like notes by Rinna on her father's art works explain that Noel responded to Christ's call, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men."

It was not like him to stay close to the shore, Rinna said, but to go deeper and deeper into the sea of humanity, get involved in people's lives, care for fellow human beings. He had his fishing net, he had his fishing line. He reached out, he cared.

After his government stint as National Security Adviser (that was when he also went full steam into digging and finding for the government the so-called hidden treasures buried in many sites all over the country), Noel went full-time into management education and NGO work.

"One evening," Rinna narrated, "Noel cast his net to the other side of his boat. It was the biggest catch ever for him. In awe, he could not move a limb, he could not speak a word. But he could laugh and he could sing! He shed tears. He was caught in the net of God's unconditional love."

If Noel could only tell the whole story, Bengzon said. The story of daring fishers in a turbulent sea. It is a story for the present time.

(Dr. Emanuel "Noel" Soriano's paintings are also available at