Getting Back to Work

Upon returning to my old job at the University of the Philippines, this time as a lecturer, our department secretary passed me a simple document, stating that I had not been employed for all of 2016. She explained that this would explain the lack of information on any of my tax returns, that basically there had been no employer to formally and institutionally deduct taxes from my income. What it did however was confirm something I already knew, in the back of my mind, but had felt too shy, too sheepish, or too ashamed to admit – that I, who had always considered myself financially responsible, had basically hemorrhaged money for most of last year.

I cannot say this without a heaping dose of shame, not only because from the cradle to the grave, we are expected to be on an upwards trajectory of financial success and individual milestones; but that there is so much privilege in being able to quote-unquote-fall from or forego that narrative, and still be able to put a roof over one’s head and indulge in the little extras. In my case, the money I’ve been socialized into seeing as mere crumbs has provided for me, my cats, and for the past few months, my boyfriend.

There is a steady stream of help: My parents never let me down, friends made use of what I had to offer as a technical designer and writer, I got a grant and a fellowship that allowed me to keep busy, and then finally, I got another job. These were accompanied by the many small gestures that made life easier: new and old friends picking up the tab for meals, veterinarians waiving certain fees or giving discounts, just, you know, stuff. That stuff though has added up to an indispensable guarantee of not only survival, but gratitude.

Right before I left for Kuala Lumpur (to help install ESCAPE from the SEA), I spent days crying my eyes out. My kitten, Graba, was seriously suffering from whatever disease it was that her subsitute cat-mom, Little Dot (aka Dorothy), had succumbed to. Like Dorothy, Graba had seen a number of vets, none of whom were able to diagnose her properly. Unlike Dorothy, by then I already knew that the best option would be the most painful for me. Her doctor suspected she had been having multiple seizures, although none as severe as Dot’s, and as her second night confined at the vet approached, I decided to have her put to sleep. I held her paw as she breathed her last and told her I would always be there for her. And less than 12 hours later, I boarded my flight to KL – the excitement at mounting a big project in a foreign country mixing uneasily with the lead weight in my chest.

I have come to terms with having done my best, despite not being able to save her, but I still haven’t sorted out my feelings over losing her the way I did. The day before our opening, I remembered that I would be returning to an apartment that did not have her in it. That my demanding, occasionally depressed, but sweet kitten was already gone. And while I didn’t even have time to think about it, I still wept uncontrollably. But we had work to install, captions to write, and a catalog to edit. As had so often been the case, there was no time for grief.

In its place is gratitude, not only for having loved the way I did because a life as small as Graba’s, but finding and actually having other places, people, endeavors into which I can channel that love. My chest would tighten and I was never entirely sure which emotion was welling up – whether the shortness of breath was from pure joy or utter sadness. Sometimes I hate having to travel–and with Graba in critical condition, I thought the last thing I wanted to do was go on this trip. But this trip also affirmed something else: that despite not always feeling like I have a place in the art world, I still believe in art, still believe in artists, and the ones I’ve had the good fortune to meet during this trip are some of the sanest, most generous people I’ve ever encountered. And for that: gratitude.

I have been incredibly lucky to have spent a substantial chunk of my adult life around art – writing about it, seeing it created – but this is the first time I’m doing more than just puttering around behind the scenes and following orders. This is also the first time I’m being credited as part of a curatorial team, and I could not have picked a better team to work with.

Monday, I fly back home. Tuesday, it’s back to work after two weeks of missing meetings with my kids. Wednesday, we move out of our apartment, and Thursday, the Manila component of this exhibition series opens. Friday, I meet another team for the next project, and after that is the rest of my life and whatever and ever follows, amen. But forever I am grateful. I need to remember that the gratitude should outweigh the grief.