Green and Black, and Black and Green

Frederik de Wilde, Hostage (2010)

I’ve written a lot about love in the past here but mostly in a tongue-in-cheeky way that only aims to confirm the little interest I have in it–or claim to have in it–as if to acknowledge how it only leads to inventions and institutions that, for the most part, aren’t even working.

Last night was a little different. After the premiere of our friend Bia’s documentary, Letters to the Future, I had a few drinks with my best friends, Marla and Jaton. Together, the three of us used to run New Slang, an online magazine that also functioned as a platform for fleshing out our issues (because it was a magazine, get it?). It was a short lived project, but four years later, we’ve remained near and dear to each other. Most of Jaton’s energy has gone to after school programs teaching English, while Marla was recently certified as a Reiki healer and can now see auras.

“What color is mine?” I asked her. She said it was green, “the heart chakra”, and that I wanted to be loved. Being quick to contradict as well, I remember thinking it didn’t make sense because “I’m Alice and I don’t care what people think and I’m fine on my own”. This is a trait that took years to cultivate, and I have come to be stupidly proud of it. At the same time, it’s a defense mechanism, a way to survive, and has thus gotten in the way of reaching out when it matters. Friends can tell when you’re bluffing though, and what Marla was seeing had everything to do with love, while I was only capable of talking about approval. And while there is some truth to not needing anyone’s approval above my own, I can’t say the same for loving and being loved back.

Again, I’ve written about it in the past, but I always favoured talking about how much I valued my independence and the flexible terms I’m able to define by remaining untethered, but it’s not just about that. Food still tastes better on dates. I chew slowly. I want to prolong the company. Yet I’ve also become good at ignoring my grief once it’s gone.

If the last thing I want to do at 28 is cry over a boy, I can’t even imagine how this will look in five or ten years. As if to confirm this, I just woke up from a dream, where I received a call from a boy I liked, asking “What do you want most in the world?” (obviously residue from Bia’s work, because no one calls just to ask that, unless they’re right outside your door with a boom box blasting Peter Gabriel). And I couldn’t answer coherently, instead I stammered out a list of things that escape me now, among which was “A PONY!” A pony covered in glitter, more than anything in the world.

When we said our goodbyes and hung up, I snapped out of it on cue, waking up to check my phone but of course it wasn’t real. Of course it never happened. That was it, though: that phone call that never happened. That was the green part of my aura that only my closest friends can see.

Travel(back)logue 2012, pt. 3

“Here’s how this works,”

A friend and I were standing in front of a Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation consisting of two mirrors. We each had a frame to ourselves.

“Now go over there to where I can’t see you anymore,” he said, gesturing for me to step aside, emptying the adjacent reflection. “Then it becomes the saddest thing you’ve ever seen.”

I hadn’t been familiar with Gonzalez-Torres’s work prior to this, but from what I’d already seen that afternoon at Plateau, he dealt with themes of proximity and isolation, stemming from the void created by a loved one’s absence. These are themes that can destroy you, depending on how you deal with extended solitary confinement or the palpability of loss. A lacuna that would later open every postcard and every declaration of “Wish you were here!” to overanalysis. When you’re traveling, you’re always meeting people, but the inevitability of leaving could weigh just as heavily. Continue reading “Travel(back)logue 2012, pt. 3”

Alone in the house, silently but not unpleasantly

What We Talk About When We Talk About Raymond Carver

Few writers are able to acknowledge the ocean of heartache that exists inside all of us as well as Raymond Carver does. This is what comes to mind when re-reading Carver after a decade. I forgot what story it was that first drew me into his work. It might have been “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which has several couples talking about being stricken and attached as well as the petty infidelities that chip away at what could be our most meaningful relationships.

At 17, I had never touched alcohol, never really been broken up with or cared for in a way that carried the gravity of commitment, or loved in a sense that would make betrayal hurt the way it does now. “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” A perfectly turned phrase can add something to us, and whatever it may be at 17 changes upon being read again at 27.

What Carver was so particularly skilled at was capturing that moment in which having another warm body in your bed becomes more of a fact than a favor. It articulated what was stagnating and mundane in a manner which still bore the weight of the history which preceded it, and this is a quality of his work which makes it as personal as it is anonymous. Whether or not Carver was writing autobiographically is beside the point, the point is that the concise descriptions and the simple dialogue tell the story of anyone we might know. The point is Carver tells us stories of ourselves. Take this scene from “Blackbird Pie,”

When we’d finished eating, and after we’d had our coffee and dessert, my wife said something that startled me. “Are you planning to be in your room this evening?” she said…
Are you planning to be in your room this evening? Such a question was altogether out of character for her. I wonder now why on earth I didn’t pursue this at the time. She knows my habits, if anyone does. But I think her mind was made up even then. I think she was concealing something even as she spoke.

Few writers are able to narrate that slow and painful process of climbing out of that oceansized well of hurt and loving someone again unburdened by the possibility of heartbreak. And then there’s John Darnielle, who writes lines like “I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow,” which don’t make sense on their own, but flow seamlessly in and out of lines like “I wonder now why on earth I didn’t pursue this at the time.”

There’s Julian Barnes, who despite the hurt and loneliness that creep up in his subject matter, has never written anything ugly or angry.
And as you keep on keeping on, these other people–writers or otherwise–just come in from out of nowhere with the uncanny ability to speak for you or articulate your thoughts before they were even fully-formed in your own mind. The same can be said for what’s in your heart. What’s utterly terrifying is that the same can be said for what’s in your heart.

I bring this up now because of the week that was. My sister came home from Texas a couple of weeks back, got married, launched a book, and as of now she is on a plane bound for LAX, from where she will transfer to Houston, the to McAllen. I miss her, yes, but above everything I will miss the normalcy her presence brought to the household. She hadn’t been around for a year, but getting out of bed and finding her in the dining room heating up a cup of coffee felt like the most natural thing in the world – like a link snapping back into place.

But aside from that, it was also driving to and from the hospital, the wedding, the family affairs in between and the small victories we had as daughters, sisters, and friends. There were little breaks – my students had their fashion show, time was taken out to see friends, passion projects were attended to. But we’re back in bed now, and it feels like so much to take in the span of a week and now, all I want is to lie down and revisit Raymond Carver’s short stories.

An actual status update including things I have trouble saying out loud

  1. It turns out my foster kitten, Marcy, may have been hit by a car before I picked her up. Her wounds aren’t healing, instead they’re peeling away to reveal something even more acute than something she caught from the shitty weather we’ve been having. And she’s slowly deteriorating beside me, but she’s also in that awkward space between being in too much pain to get any rest, but not enough for her to just pass out. Tomorrow we get x-rays done and find out if we have to put her down gently. The decision is already overwhelmingly painful, but what else is there, really? I mean, what favors would I be doing her by letting her live a life wherein every breath causes her so much pain.
  2. I’m turning 27 in a couple of weeks.
  3. And two things I’ll be doing for the 2nd time around: a biennale and a trip to South Korea, also in a couple of weeks.
  4. My sister’s coming home in October to get married!
  5. Then Jogja and Regi Lhaynn’s wedding in November! Hooray for beginnings!
  6. It’s easy to see ahead when you’re on top of everything you’ve mapped out. Then there are the things outside of your control. Most of these things involve other lives: Marcy, Friedrich, my nonexistent significant other. I like happy endings, but all of this is forcing me to reevaluate the terms. 
  7. It’s true what they say about your twenties just whipping by like dog years. Something about raising a glass to life or to health. I raise my glass to having choices, because not everyone is as lucky. Even worse off are those who have choices, but also fail to see them.
  8. I’ve also been closer to my Mom, who goes out of her way to be kind to the animals that now share this place with us. I’ve been meeting people who feel the same incomprehensible tug towards being there for a sick cat or a dog that’s about to be turned into meat. A while ago, a girl whose name I didn’t catch gave me a Denta Stick and taught me to offer it to Happy (her dog with behavioral problems) with an open palm so she wouldn’t snap. I have so much to learn about being patient and being kind and being brave. I’m turning 27, but I can’t remember the last time I felt this small or this helpless, just waiting for the hours ’til we can get Marcy’s diaphragm checked. 

The Ghost of Rockschool

I’ve seen God in the sun
I’ve seen God in the street
God before bed and the promise of sleep
God in my dreams
And the free ride of grace
But it all disappears and then I wake up

There’s a story behind these pictures of Karl. They were taken on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. My mom woke me up that morning by telling me that there would be no school that day, so could I please take our dog, Ginger, to the vet to get her bald spots checked. I asked, what about college? And she said she didn’t know if classes were cancelled at the college level.

I got my breakfast ready, and took it back to my room to check online if classes really were cancelled that day. This is where it gets blurry. It seems for the past month, Metro Manila’s been in the middle of a storm, and our house–being built to take natural light and natural air–has become a life-sized experimental arrangement of doors slamming backed by the wind rushing through. We knew this could prove fatal for the kittens, so my mom bought doorstops and hooks to prevent any accidents.

My sister’s room is different though. I’ve been staying here for the past few months, since she left, and sometimes the kittens stay with me. The hallway is elevated, with the door opening inward, gliding on air, so there’s no way to put a doorstop it. It used to be ideal when the kittens were smaller, because the step was too high for them to climb out.

That morning, I opened the door, and what happened next I can’t really remember, but with all the force it took to shut the door, it did not shut. I turned around and saw Friedrich, Karl’s brother, writhing on the floor, mid-seizure. He had been attempting to crawl out when the door slammed shut. I scooped him up and started yelling all kinds of unintelligible things until I just grabbed my car keys and drove out barefoot with Friedrich in my lap, in search of a vet. The nearest one was closed, the next one did not have any oxygen with which to revive him. He died within minutes.

I got home with his tiny body wrapped in newspaper and buried him next to his sister. It was only 8 am, but by the time I got to school I no longer had the energy to teach or anything to tell my students because of the crushing guilt that was weighing so heavily on every fiber of my being. I think of all the tiny moments that cost him his life, the seemingly innocuous little details that could have changed the course of that day (and consequently, this one). Even earlier that morning Friedrich had been running around my room with my headphones strung to his foot by the cord. I got up to untie it so he could play, unencumbered. Less than half an hour later I would be barefoot in my vet’s office, pleading for a way to pull him through.

Everything hums as the blue heart turns
And the blue girl’s dawn
Is when the sun goes down
My story tonight
Is from your solitude heights
I got a window on your constellation

Driving home, I remember congratulating myself for not crying. I thought maybe I was over it; maybe I finally absorbed the practical realities that accompany dealing with very fragile, very small lives. Or that very small lives come with very small deaths. But none of those ideas held water for very long. I cried on my way to school. Cried on the phone with my dad. Cried every chance I got to be alone, and have relished every minute of it, because tomorrow would have to be another day. Tomorrow, I might not get a chance to be as honest with myself about how all this really feels.

The logic of Tomorrow comes with focusing my attention on Friedrich’s brother, Karl, pictured above. I’ve been a foster parent for a little over a year now, and Karl is one of the most unique kittens I’ve ever had the chance to care for. He sings to his food. He literally makes this prolonged high-pitched buzz, similar to a dial tone, while he’s eating. Sometimes he crawls onto my chest then puts his paws on my cheeks and his general nose area against mine, like an Eskimo kiss. On Saturday, Karl and Friedrich were supposed to go to their forever home, but I guess it’s just Karl now.

I spoke to my sister about it this morning. There’s nothing like losing a pet to make you feel indescribably alone in your grief. There’s a very personal bond between pets and their carers, an extended inside joke. My capacity for emotional derailment and full-scale meltdowns are no match for the unforeseen circumstances in which I lost Friedrich. But she also told me to stop blaming myself, to learn to forgive, and to listen to Belle and Sebastian’s “The Ghost of Rock School,” which I’ve been doing all day. She’s right, but it won’t change the fact that there’s no life too small to grieve over.

Master I love from the ground above
As the stars below as my memory flows
Every picture frame is beating
Louder than time
Every clock in the hall is bending slowly