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 pan 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.

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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.

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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.

 

How to Become Legible

Somewhere on a microblogging platform, someone complained of the seeming need of people to separate introvert from extrovert, as though a person could be so neatly divided into two.

Somewhere, ghostly, I peer into the snippets of horoscopes, of people near my birth. Today, you feel annoyed, but let not the storms touch you. Today, you will face a quandary at work. Don’t let the past endanger your future. Your aura today is blue shadowed green, stay away from red.

There is a calm that only generalities can reach, and a suspicion which is delicious when suspended, though some are tempting precisely because the death of stars is tangible, like milk from the carton, or the scrape of eraser against paper. Likewise, your trail of dust may reveal the secret to the universe, or may be brushed aside to mean:

Your existence tempts no one.

Tonight, I will ghostwrite your horoscope and it will look remarkably like mine.

Intrigue

Interest kills.

Once, there was an island they prided for peace, the way a poet once said Provence (when it was Provence), and we made sure that the stories were true. When love was still pure and vanity was still striking, I liked to say that this island is me and you. We are archipelagic in scope and tragedy: to reach one another, we must make an effort, pack our bags, drive to the airport, endure the pungent presence of people, pretend that a moment is worth the distortion of paradise; yet we remain moving with plates underneath us, ever drifting in tectonic, poetic justice. If you were me, and I were you, I would have severed sovereignty long ago, cradled myself against a motherland less broken, more inherently fragile, easier to love. But love was love long before people set foot on an island, before they knew the curve of rock pounded until it becomes fine powder: so grace is merely what is left when we have left ourselves. I have been told of this narrative before. When longing was still raw and insistence was still adamant, I demanded distance as long as you claimed destiny. I will outcry the loss of heaven, but airfare will convince me otherwise. If I were you and you were me, this would have ended more neatly. As it is I have attracted your interest, you have lured me to your hammock, the strings swing but do not break, their knots press meat against bone. I am you and you are me, but it will take some time until this island catches my interest again.

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Vintage

You look at the sky, you look at the sea. You wonder about intentions, and tourists, and how a landscape looks like a broken body after it has been subject to collision. The mind is a wonder in itself. That it is able to ponder collision, before its advent. Your mind understands this: the mental pulling-back, the instantaneous fear before two bodies meet, the intimacy of impact, the turn to either away or down. Your heart fears this: that many other travelers have walked here before you; that they know what you will say, having said this themselves. Time and again in photographs you will see them marvel at what they do not have because they will claim it is what they want. This is a lie. The vendors can read between lies. They know the hobble of a native that knows the sharp slide of sand-rock against the gentle curve of a foot, burdened with weightlessness, of a hunger they will not understand because it is a wanting that is defined by its existence, the refusal that is at the heart of deprivation. You swim, you run, you walk, you sleep, you smile, you love, you ignore the nagging feeling that behind this city-painted anomaly of ever-repentant waves, you are weeping, not for the place you have traveled to, but for one to which you will never return.

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