My culture: Merlee Cruz-Jayme on her years at a convent

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My culture: Merlee Cruz-Jayme on her years at a convent

Imagine a restless, rebellious 13-year-old who packed a bag one day, left a goodbye note, made that big step of leaving home and family for a quiet, more meaningful life in a far-away convent.

That was me. This three-year adventure at a Benedictine convent in Pampanga, a northern province of the Philippines, fundamentally influenced who I am today. I was strongly determined to do something more useful in life. That something was to help the world in any way I could. And absolutely nothing could stop me.

Three years in a cloister can totally blow you away physically and emotionally. In retrospect, I am thankful for that. Today, I am still surprised at myself for having done things I never thought I could do.  

It was a world of utter simplicity. There were no watches, so I knew when to head back from the fields by telling the time from standing under the sun. To kill vanity, the convent had no mirrors. I remember being taken aback seeing my own reflection in a drum of water when I was watering the trees.

The rigid life toughened me up. I slept in a narrow, wooden bed without a mattress, which prevented me from twisting or turning. My stomach got used to a plain diet of rice, vegetables and a sprinkle of salt.

Lights out at night was at 7pm. After the hard day’s toil, sleep was easy. Following seven hours of sleep, I went through the longest prayer of the day at 2am, at the height of sleepiness. This, I realised, is a way to teach the body to keep itself awake when needed.

My convent years gave me adventure, and lots of muscles. I learned to climb trees to harvest local blackberries in the summer months. I cleaned water tanks as big as a car, 20 feet above the ground. Watering hundreds of newly planted trees was no joke. I fetched water from a drum 100 metres away and emptied a whole milk can on each tree. If you cheated, and watered with less than a full can for each tree, it turned yellow the next day. Every rainy season, I caught catfish in the mud.

From taking care of orphans and the elderly to making my own sandals from pieces of tyre rubber, I made big and small things happen.

When I think about it, those three years were simply a preparation for learning how to hone creativity. Those were three years of precious training to be a good writer, an inspiring leader at work, and a loving wife and mother at home.

After all, three years mean 26,280 hours of cleansing one’s thoughts, erasing ill will from the heart, absorbing the meaning of faith and understanding how nature and people work.

My years in the convent satisfied my relentless curiosity, and my thirst to learn the meaning of life was quenched. When that day of enlightenment came, I knew it was time to come home. I was 16 years old.

This remarkable experience paved the way for me to come back to school. When my only training was building a great vocabulary from the Fathers of the Church, it was little short of a miracle that I passed my subjects with high grades.

In my fourth year in college, I found myself winning the school elections as president of the student council. In a very short time, I was able to help some students who had been bullied and sexually harassed. By gathering 100 signatures during our graduation rites, my student council successfully kicked out an abusive male teacher.

I then joined a women’s group that campaigned to end violence against women and children. This group, Gabriela, is my beloved client to this day.

From a life of silence, I relished the art of communication. Armed with fresh thinking, discipline, the ability to filter through clutter, resourcefulness, calmness of spirit and the power to read people, I have survived 30 years of advertising through thick and thin.

Living with the "sisters" has given me the ability to understand people inside and out. I love searching for human insights, especially those that concern women. CSR projects give me ultimate happiness and selffulfilment. Anything to help underprivileged children, the poor and the hungry is always at the top of my list.

I look back on those years with fond memories and zero regrets. I still shake my head in disbelief. I tell myself: "I’m definitely a survivor."

Deep inside, I am still that restless and stubborn 13-year-old. Still that relentlessly curious teenager looking to help the world in all the ways that I can.

Today, my agency’s vision is "to create ideas that will change lives and change the world". Who would have thought that this was that teenage nun’s life vision all along?

Merlee Cruz-Jayme is "chairmom" and chief creative officer at Dentsu Jayme Syfu, the Philippines

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