An Exercise in Description

Personal intrigues: what makes narration descriptive, how is a description a narrative?

Make like loops and lollipops to answer the question:

The lure of time on your own and of your own choosing, of course, is how well-configured the spaces can become between pause and continue. For instance: take these words, which you began six months ago, and focus on them.

Ah, but the mind resists, for it is no longer used to examining serifs and italics. Easier to digest: the slant of architecture in neighbor’s roof, the gape of canal in another long-polluted road that smells of too much work, the polish of saltine spray bottles that come cheap but inevitably amount to more costs than one would have imagined as necessary (repeat after me: they were thinking of you when they removed the truck ban. The trees are for show. You are right to assume, this city is trying to kill me).

Less facile to speak of: the rounded edges of tables now protected against water marks, the lackluster scenery as seen from a vehicle when you hitch with a friend–you never know whether to make polite conversation, or let yourself get lost in the same dull illusion of reflections overlapping in the glass pane and leering drivers outside. Or the highway that invites traffic at all times of day. Still, ennui in a moving vehicle demands a kind of concentration. It is there, and just flimsy enough to be broken into should conversation suddenly become essential. Describe it like a poem in reverse. Take a cue from Mr. O’Hara:

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so. I admire you, beloved, for the trap you’ve set. It’s like a final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.

And then, as distraction to project the kind of life you could never live:

Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.

Leisure is ridiculous as it allows for indulgent description. And yet, when the cliche push comes to shove does, indeed, come in, one looks at the backlog and is surprised at the number of narratives. Given one’s own pace, one can distinguish a personal calendar of accountability to one’s pen. Instructed to do so, however, one freezes in her tracks. Hmm, perhaps I went wrong somewhere. There was something about this, a while back:

Why should I share you? Why don’t you get rid of someone else for a change?

And then:

Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list!), but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.

The addiction, however, is pull of black hole, like auto-pilot on public transportation, allergies be damned. It is the realization that all pauses, to mean something, must only be significant in relation to enjambment. You can dither all you like, but the deadlines will be met and the signatures collected to make a pact.

You are surrounded by people who would give it all up, and how lovely! And, would you like to join them? And yet. And yet (always, that voice!):

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.

The answer is that we take a breather to understand ourselves. To fall back, take it slow, and realize you have fallen in love with yourself all over again. That is the reason behind the laughter, the incapacity for description that grips the narrative, rendering it plotless.

Why, of course I’ll be back.

The above is what happens, naturally, in the lull. And then there will be non-reviews to attend to, of course.

Early Constructs

Domesticity is easy if you find a system of language for it.

*

In the first few phases of life, the word is “mother,” because there is no career–not hers, and certainly not yours, not yet. Not even now. To cook meals, there was only ever heat and crumbling kitchen tiles, made alive by the dread of being told, as a child, to set the table.

Now, nearing “old”–“older”?, domesticity means you bought your own food supplies but forgot all the basics that you’ve stored in your heart these long years. So in the end, you starve. Nothing comes of nothing, after all. If nothing were salt. Or pepper, or vinegar, or fish sauce.

*

The first recipe you ever really learn from your mother, and execute on your own, is this:

You take out the shrimp from the freezer. You immerse it in water to defrost. You look for the olive oil, make sure there’s butter. You gather eight to 10 cloves of garlic, and crush them with the flat side of the knife. You place the pan on the stove, on medium heat, and wait a while until it’s warm enough: ready for the oil and butter, and just when it melts, you know to put the garlic. And then you must wait just before it burns to pour in the gray-black of raw shrimp, mixing it a little, waiting to turn them all pink.

*

There are other things to learn from the hands of a father. Things like: Should you really leave that mess on the table what will happen if you do why didn’t you throw this out this is why our life is anything but spotless but where is every little thing–

And then there is resourcefulness. The first thing that comes to mind (because you wanted to do it yourself) is a project in elementary, when a number of you were failing, and for extra points, were told to construct any three-dimensional shape, wrap it up in fancy paper, and pray to god that the points added up to say you might be, for now, just enough.

You wanted to construct this yourself. As in a narrative, there was (always will be) a shape in your mind. Points on a plane serve a purpose, though no one ever tells you this project can be taken away from you. Paternal resourcefulness means you should have used the balustrade to make the illustration board pliable, should have had the hands of a man and the patience of a father to do so, and you can do this, too, sulk and be memorable.

*

Domesticity is easy to spell and savor now, the way you learned, on your own, to scramble eggs and add cheese and olives. The way you know, exactly by the ironic fact of estimation, how much milk to put and to never stop stirring until you see the fluff of it, the promise of many healthy mornings and idealism, but we were talking of your mother, and now of yourself, when you remember:

*

You add only half a packet of tomato paste to the shrimp in the pan–any more and there you have it, yesterday’s disaster. And then a little water, and cover the pan a while–But not too long! Less than five minutes will do. You add the sweet-and-sour sauce, and mix and mix and mix, and laugh at the shrimp that falls out of the pan (onto the counter, onto the floor) because your wrist is unpracticed, because the aim of your hand isn’t yet true. You add a little ketchup and sugar and salt (all by estimates) and stir, and cover, and stir again. Easy, easy, tell yourself. It’s all so easy. Repeat your mistakes, repeat yourself.

*

You know you can only claim culinary success if you cook what your mother does with eyes closed, but eggs sunny-side-up are difficult enough as it is.

To wit: success means nilagang baka, tinola, or real sourness, real flavor, sinigang.

*

In the end, teaching students empathy boils down to this. This is not pathos, this is not writing, this is not cooking, this is not domestication, this is not flight, this is not sadness, this is not life, this is not work, this is not a CV, this is not a career, this is not an emotion. She writes, “You want to learn how to stop feeling sorry for yourself. You want to write an essay about the lesson. You throw away the checklist and let him climb into your hospital bed. You let him part the heart wires. You sleep. He sleeps. You wake, pulse feeling for another pulse, and there he is again.”

But empathy is craft, too, and careful construction, and messy estimates. I stop, I breathe, I disagree again.

sinigang

not today, not yet

A Letter to My Exhausted Self

In recent years, I’ve used the term “body politics” to cover a number of things. Of course this isn’t me claiming I’ve come up with the term; this is simply me wondering where I’ve gone wrong, and how psychosomatic pain has become a reality of which I speak, as much lived in as thought of and talked about.

At the last leg of the school year, an unexplained pain in my forearm resulted in elastic bandage for a week or two, just when I had bagged a terribly long freelance job and had told myself the struggle was enough and necessary, and that I could do all of that.

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What looks a little cool the first time, around, till it itches and you just want to do without.

But the concern came when, after the recommended time, I removed the bandage but the pain came back. A series of unfortunate, blurred events: eventually we went to the doctor for an x-ray, but nothing suspicious was found. The words carpal tunnel had been thrown about, but I was unwilling to accept it, and even the doctors I talked to ruled it out. Could it be all the typing, I asked, and one of them said, Perhaps. Sometimes it has to do with the nerves in the fingers. They get tired.

*

Even today, months after I’ve taken the second bandage out, the pain flickers, just to remind me that it can still come back. I conduct exercises now, after long bouts of typing, and thankfully the pain is never as bad as it was. Meanwhile, I hear the same from friends as they go about their own tasks: the headaches, the changes in cycle, the inability to sleep, even when tired.

Again and again, the doctors tell us: Stress, stress. You’re too stressed out.

*

It is only in the last two years that emotional stress has manifested in physical pain. Before that, I used to read about women in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and wondered all the characters who came down with brain fever, having worried themselves out. Meanwhile, all around me I heard from friends who couldn’t muster the day ahead because of harrowing loneliness. I wondered at all of that, at the possibility, because it all seemed unreal.

Of course, that was all it took for it to start happening to me.

*

You can change what you want about yourself at any time. You see yourself as someone who can’t write or play an instrument, who gives in to temptation or makes bad decisions, but that’s really not you. It’s not ingrained. It’s not your personality. Your personality is something else, something deeper than just preferences, and these details on the surface, you can change anytime you like.

If it is useful to do so, you must abandon your identity and start again. Sometimes, it’s the only way. – Julien Smith, The Flinch

*

I want to tell someone (not a particular person, not someone, but anyone): You don’t understand. I take things slowly, I digest life one thing at a time. My whole life I’ve felt that everyone else grows by leaps and bounds. Of course this is an illusion, a story I’ve learned to tell myself. But all of it seems too real when I consider my snail-paced self. But what I want to say is that it took me forever to figure things out. And if I refuse to say anything, it is not so much a matter of distrust than the fact that I would like to keep things a little longer, to myself, to protect it from external doubt. The truth is, I took my time, I lazed around. I talked of words, and used words, but in practice I held everything back.

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Always, always: it’s the little things all throughout.

I want to tell myself: You’re on your way up. The glasses of water, the pictures you took, the changes in the rooms you move in, none of them are empty signs. Keep drinking water. Cut down on caffeine. Read anything and everything. Put a book down as soon as you realize it’s not what you like. Choose company wisely. Look for recipes online. Write them down on your journal. Try them out. Study anything and everything that interests you, and learn to love yourself and your capacity to learn all this stuff. If you must spend money, then fine, but get rid of that sickening self-righteous guilt afterwards. Rearrange your space. Fangirl, fangirl, fangirl. Write even when you don’t feel like it. Update your blog when you feel like it’s time. The type of content and the number of hits you get matters less than the emotional and spiritual exercise it will give your heart. Sleep, sleep; when all seems lost, just sleep.

*

This is not late blooming. This is blooming on your own time.

Now for some notes in true non-sequitur form; I’ve been neglecting this blog, so to compel myself to get things done I might as well put some things down here:

– Part II of my The Well of Loneliness review

– Thoughts on fantasy (genre) and teaching fantasy

– Part II of my thoughts on Italo Calvino’s Difficult Loves (Jeez, how long as it been?!)

– Critical thoughts on some trends in social media

And I will see you all again soon enough.

The Nowadays of Unease

My father’s stories always make me uncomfortable.

These are usually told during mealtime, with his much-needed clearing of the throat, or random bursts of coughing which irk us, because we never know why he always needs to cough while speaking, and because most times he forgets to cover his mouth.

Only for meals outside of home: consent to sit elsewhere, but still always beside my mother

Only for meals outside of home: consent to sit elsewhere, but still always beside my mother

But the discomfort that I feel–youngest daughter, who upon reaching the earliest possible age that allowed her to argue back, insisted that she sit between her mother and father at the dinner table no matter what–goes beyond that, into the realm of the unsaid. There has always been the fact of the unspeakable in my father’s past, because it is something which, aside from being removed from me in time, tells of a life that the rest of us, my two older brothers and my mother, would rather forget. Poverty is something I designate with the masses; I insist, like the rest of my class, with what little privilege we have (but privilege nonetheless) that it must be alleviated.

But also when I say poverty and look out the car window and pretend not to see the leering faces of truck drivers, when I read real-life rags-to-riches stories or hear friends talk about their parents and their younger days, I always somehow think of my father, so that my throat and chest meet to constrict in ways cruel to my breathing. I dare not think of my father sleeping underneath the trucks he had to drive, or his boyhood days spent crafting cars from random materials because he didn’t have manufactured toys, or his having to give up college so that a younger sibling could go to school instead–indeed I do not dare, but it does not matter, because these are the images that stay with me anyway.

Sometimes when, in a blinding rage and having fallen victim to some personal injustice, I allow myself to think of my father as the solid figure of my childhood: with fitted shirts and thick sideburns and his own short version of the vernacular balbas-sarado, walking around the house with fists clenched and barking in anger at the smallest movements–one answered a question in a disrespectful tone, or forgot to seal a bottle; one arrived five minutes later than promised or couldn’t memorize a phone number as instructed.

A moment of pretension: there exists, too, the image of him behind the steering wheel; we’ve taken a U-turn where there is none, or we’ve been caught out on a day when the numbers on our plate say we should have taken other means to get where we need to be. Then the stiff, baritone of anger fades into illusion, as though my entire childhood were a lie. But this is not pretension, I think, this moment when he lowers his window and talks to the MMDA officer, who informs him of the mistake. My father really is apologetic; he really does not mean any harm. But he also knows the advantage of age, although perhaps not fully–how it has dressed to acquire his face which has now become smaller, with sallow cheeks and too-sharp bones. There is always a veil of exhaustion on my father’s face now, and his stomach has grown, while his arms appear weaker and softer. Altogether, something in his posture has changed in a way that cannot be anchored by the dead weight of language. But I have chosen to say posture because he holds himself much the same way he did when he was younger: proud and defensive, always suspecting that the other might throw the punch first. But watching him walk from behind, or clutching his arm as we cross the street, a fierceness takes hold of me, part confusion but also firmness, the way one fears a bonfire but wants to keep it burning.

At what point does the need to be protective transfer to the child, from her mother or father? When does a child realize that departure from home translates to leaving one’s parents unprotected? Sad? Together and alone?

*

I’m getting too old for this, I think, largely, about everything these days: Coffee with friends after work? Negative. Last full show of the latest critically-acclaimed film? God, no. An all-nighter on the same day that I woke up before 7AM to keep up with the mounting pile of work? I’d rather die. And on the other hand, to be filled with youth: to have passed the stalwart fragility of teenage years; to smile and shrug, helpless and apologetic for one’s early twenties when bravado and insistence on adulthood came in waves of infinite determination followed by spaces of ennui on one’s first job and the blank-faced awareness of logging onto social media only to see that one’s peers have become successful–to know, at this point, that sometimes the best approach really is to keep one’s head down; to reveal secrets like rare currency, to be shared on the black market with a network of agents who deal in the same emotional lacuna but who brighten at the mention of cheap thrills you like to call indulgence; to understand that working hours are an excellent derivative of opium, but that at the same time one must count the breaths taken between and tally them up to understand the depth of dissatisfaction with oneself and then wonder, automated, “What’s next on the to-do-list?” In other words: Not old, not young, my favorite writer says, but a viable-diable age.

*

Where does the disparity come from? I remember when I couldn’t imagine a boudoir of my own, when playtime meant I could climb on the office chair (or perhaps it was another kind? I remember we only moved an office chair in there sometime in my high school years) in front of my mother’s dresser and play with her jewelry, and take in the fragrance of her cosmetics which were, of course, really her own smell. Even now I know it: something soft and hidden, gathering years–although it was always new back then, because in those days my mother hadn’t yet sacrificed her career for us. In those days she still wore high heels and walked around Makati as easily as she now navigates, with her weak knee, the memorized paths of our small home–from the bedroom, down to steps and into the kitchen, from the kitchen through the dining room and into the sala, back to the kitchen, until night falls and she must rest after all she has done.

These days I have my own dresser, of strange varnished wood that smells sour even though it was bought years ago, and if my cosmetics and toiletries, my blush-on and lotions, my bottles of perfume have lent it a distinct smell, I can only tell you that sitting beside my bookshelf, it suffers the necessary inheritance of burden: dusty books I love and  tried to re-read but failed to, in pursuit always of new things to read in the conviction that re-reading, once a favorite activity, now translates to a waste of time, a kind of fear of missing out; earrings I always promise myself I’ll store in their proper little jewelry boxes but which get lost eventually, falling to the floor and never to be found again; dirty mugs and glasses when I come home for weekends and drink myself to caffeine death chasing deadlines.

My whole life my father has scolded me about clutter. Surprisingly, this is one of the characteristics of my childhood that was not dictated by sex–my thanks to one older brother who, in his whole life, has also manifested the talent for living in complete disarray. But these days when, at home, I walk around the house with dark circles under my eyes, thinking of words I must write and meetings that clash with the precious time I would have wanted to dedicate to much needed cramming, my father keeps his silence, and on the days when I am away my mother tells me he goes into my room: not to revel in the disappointment of a messy daughter, but to clean up after me; indeed, to pick up the dirty clothes I’ve discarded in my rush to return to my life in the north. To fold the blanket I’ve tossed under, worried and sleepless the entire night. To gather the books and papers I’ve read through and stacked together in an order that makes sense only in the time I don’t have to arrange them. To do all this without complaint.

Nowadays he tells me not to rush; to take it easy and make sure to eat a lot when I’m away. Now he tells me, in moments when I want to give up on this much-acclaimed path to higher education and another thesis, to be thankful and to calm down–to adjust to those whose way of thinking can expect no more progress, because I am the one capable of change.

But no, I think. Change happens to all of us. There comes a point in our lives when change is no longer a matter of wanting to turn the proverbial leaf but a matter of Margaret sitting in front of her laptop on a Sunday evening crying, aware of the onslaught of the coming weeks and wondering why no one ever bothered telling her that by blight they really meant formless terror, the kind that hovers in the peripheral, always uncertain and so bound to happen and take shape when you least expect it. Nobody bothers to say that by blight they also mean the forgotten paper clip as much as the chance cab taken to work. Nobody bothers to teach the child that once was that it is the sharing of eyebrow pencils between mother and daughter, or the pain of her first real death–the mother of a mother–is heavier and more haunting than any heartbreak.

*

Several conversations in the course of perhaps only a few weeks have helped to form this personal compulsion, which is precisely what I hadn’t been wont to feel when it comes to writing lately. That’s the necessary collateral, probably, when you make your so-called passion your a means of living, although to say so here is of course, only a minor but necessary diversion.

One fangirl moment which is unique in that I feel I do not have to defend my literary politics or whom I associate with: months ago I thought that perhaps to finally enjoy my labor would paradoxically require some sacrifice. One Saturday, I thought; I can sacrifice one Saturday and attend a symposium on a critic I may never get this close to again, whose work I have read my entire life and with whom, at least internally, I feel I can manage to disagree with as I discussed him with my peers, imagining myself to be in the best formative years of my writing, no matter how illusory that “now” as the very moment may finally become.

It was a day, I think, of a generation I had much admired, and still do, in the only way that someone in my current age and position can admire them while looking at the crisis of my own times. It was a day of recognizing, not for the first time, that I admire old men the way I think about my father and the ghost of two grandfathers I never had the chance to meet. That is, with fascination and faint despair, and so therefore always, always, with sadness.

That day his wife talked about Escolta, and I found I could finally drop everything else I was tasked to do on a working Saturday and truly listen–the way that, lately, I can recognize discomfort over a meal and listen to a story and enjoy both, although not always with equal measure. My father grew me up on these stories which are horrible not because they were sad, or even because they are about him in particular, but because I can read nothing from them except nostalgia. But from the moment he started that habit he also ingrained in me the ability to read him between the lines of other people’s stories, so that when she, late in the afternoon begins to speak of old Manila I cannot help but remember my father and whatever errands he once ran there as a young man, or how he knows every nook and cranny and at seventy can still take public transportation or drive me around where I need to be, taking short cuts along side streets I wouldn’t trust were I with anybody else, only to re-emerge, sighing and relieved,  in the middle of EDSA or somewhere along Makati Avenue.

*

Discomfort in your own home is so ridiculous because you feel like you don’t deserve it, but also because it rightly belongs only to you. Sadness exists in the narratives that you don’t recognize as your own until somebody else mirrors them and confirms: Those stories of your father are true. They are real; I was there too.

Memory triggers.

Memory triggers

Empathy

I like the look of girls after a party, the way they all carry their shoes in their hands and I can tell where their eyeliner smudged and mixed with sweat or the unexpected tears, the way their curls look like each strand has been mussed by the night: the way they carry themselves with tremendous dignity but also a careful weariness, as though there was one flick of the wrist or wink of an eye in the past night that they want to return to and tilt like a curator tilts the frame of consciousness in the perception of art. But a woman is not an idea she told me, and I realize she is right. In all my time with her I can’t remember anything but illumination (neither her jeans nor her hair, not a cardigan or a tennis shoe; not even some heels or a dress of any hue) and I wondered if she had finally become what stupid proud boys can only dream of, if perhaps by choice she had allowed me to finally see a Woman. Flesh blood tissue muscle bone. But I could not be with her except in conversation. She talked about how physics fascinated her but not just of turning wheels or falling bodies but the dark matter and fine superstrings, the expansion until exhaustion, that terrible unknowable entropy. And in that moment I no longer wanted to be with her, a woman who understood empathy so well it no longer frightened her. But she covered my hand with hers the way one cup can be turned over and covered with another and I calmed down again, and when I tried to intertwine our fingers she pulled away. I was a little sad at first, but she said ice cream and I said yes and do you want to know the end of the story? It goes like this. I see her every Sunday and tell her about my father. Sometimes I remember what she wore, and today she wanted to attend a party. Tomorrow she will be mine and I will be hers. Next Tuesday I leave for New York. Five years from now she will wed in Manila. I will have my party, she will have hers. That is the meaning of entropy.

What Saddens Me These Days…

is miscommunication. Although perhaps that is always a danger, in any case. But what I mean to say is when I speak and you disagree, I know there is no respect in the trade-off. I have seen people around me clash in opinion, but I have also witnessed their conversation turn to laughter. What hurts is not the disagreement about style or message, but the fact of the years we spent together, closer than kin, sharper than a serpent’s tooth. Because with you there is no delight in the potential to grow even when we disagree as women. There is only your insistence on, well, you.

is also the irreducible happiness of being twenty-six. A select few will know this: I’d been told that to be twenty-six is to be sinfully young. I think that is true, although I have no idea perhaps, what it means to be sinful at all. And rather than dissect the term into black and white, good girl versus bad girl, I have come to the understanding that what becomes sinful to us, sometimes, are the joys we deprive ourselves of: because sometimes we think we don’t deserve them, have no time for them, or that such things are frivolities. And certainly those things exist, much like valid anxiety and priorities. But now that I am twenty-six I find that I am less worried about what might seem ridiculous to other people for as long as it makes me happy and causes no harm to others.

(A conversation with a colleague: how happy it is to spoil oneself during the semestral break! We were like two giddy children, telling each other what we planned to do once we got home. I confessed that lately I had started wondering if I was overdoing it, which is ridiculous. Because burning the midnight oil and paying for it with a body ready to fall sick at any moment, I would never tell myself, You’re overdoing it. How ridiculous, how strange!)

is the inhumanity behind positions of power: when someone is murdered and their humanity becomes secondary because of the wish to please the imperial master, when people are more disgusted at the prospect of two people loving each other despite race/distance/sexuality rather than the fragile ego of our leaders, when we refuse to acknowledge that state policies and international relations killed her as much as his hand did, we become complicit. We are the killers. We become ready to kill again and again. She dies, again and again.

is that the road seems to stretch forever: while I refuse, still, to measure myself against what others have gained I also learn impatience with the self. And how do I carefully balance that with self-discipline and care? There is, too, the material and substantive meaning of manuscript: that it exists not by mere power of will or thought, but by action. A memory now: a mentor laying down sheets of his manuscript on a long table, page by page: the way I plan lessons and understand poetry that I’ve no mind for. In that moment, when the cards are laid out and the tiles prepared for a palace, I see before me the material conditions of possibility.

*

What makes me happy these days:

The craft of Self, and the understanding that one grows in direct proportion to the relationships that one chooses to take care of and watch prosper.

Edit to Add: After all, some things are more important than happiness.