In search of solace

‘You’re reminded that this life is just a fleeting illusion; that you’re a humble traveler; and that this may come to an end in a snap. Today, you’re a towering figure of physique and fitness; tomorrow could be a different story. It’s not promised.’

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I STARED at it for about five minutes yesterday at one in the morning. An untitled painting that measures roughly 4 feet by 3, it was displayed on a private hospital’s wall on the third floor with a maelstrom of kaleidoscopic koi of divergent sizes swimming around an imaginary cylinder clockwise under a dark blue water. The artwork was strangely cut into half vertically and was hanging slightly slanted 15 degrees to the right. The others which boasted abstract flashes of colors and astronomic designs stationed at different sections of the corridor were not presented the same way. I was absorbed and drawn by it; its peculiarity intrigued me.

I was all alone, wide awake, sitting on a brown, foamy bench outside the capacious visitors’ room, where my mom was sleeping, just ten feet away from the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The breeze was frigid; it was raining outside. I was waiting for the doctor to come out of the ICU to check for an update on one of my brothers’ condition. He had a mild stroke while sharing a meal with his own family in their house in Cavite City, south of Manila. Coincidentally, I was on a three-day vacation leave for my birthday. But how would you celebrate your birthday knowing that your family is amid a crisis?

 “Kuya Jun Jun is in the hospital” my youngest brother Ronnel said. 

“Why?” I uttered. “What happened?”

“High blood, probably” he said. “He had seizure.” In a heartbeat, my mother and I swiftly stuffed our bags with clothes and toiletries like soldiers about to engage in a daring hunt in a deserted forest. 

It must be very serious, I said to myself.

“To a hospital in General Trias, Cavite” I told the first cab driver who halted outside our small, white gate when he inquired where we’re headed at around ten on a Sunday evening. “Please, it’s an emergency, sir.”

“I’m not going south” he answered. And just like that with one of the side windows still half-open, he hastily left.

A huge weight of our exasperation and distress vanished when the next cab driver accepted our pleas. He had brought us to a terminal in Pasay City where we instantly found a bus that took us to our destination.

While travelling, thoughts came rushing on my mind like bolts of lightning in a stormy sky: it’s kuya Jun Jun and our memories together. Yes, our late-night conversations about religion, spirituality, wisdom, mysteries, science and technology, work. His brilliance and depth on a range of topics is impeccable. Tears abruptly rolled down my face. My mother did not witness it. 

When we arrived at the hospital, my mother and I were met with stories on what had transpired earlier that day. Plates flying in the air. Chicken tinola splattering all over. Convulsion. Lips turning black. Eyes moving involuntarily. Wailing children. Panic. Chaos.

But Emergency Rooms, ICUs, Dialysis Centers, and others put everything in perspective. In those moments that you’re encapsulated by impenetrable brick structures painted white all over, everything boils down to that quiet conversation between you and God. The rest of the universe becomes irrelevant: traffic and scandals on EDSA, inflation, MRT woes, #MeToo, possibilities with the person you admire most, child abuse, fake news, typhoons, President Duterte, war on drugs, Facebook and Instagram, poverty, corruption, politics, education, South West Monsoon, career aspirations, a taxicab’s plate number. You forget about them like transitory slides in your memory not to invalidate their value but to solve and face what’s urgent. Maybe, it’s the brain’s natural response in emergency situations. 

You’ve probably been there before. You asked why and wondered why it all happened. Yes, why it had to be you or your family.

You know all the answers to these inquiries by heart, but still, there’s a strange, ineluctable sensation when you’re amid it all – existing, breathing, and convincing yourself to be brave in the challenge given to you. You’re reminded that this life is just a fleeting illusion; that you’re a humble traveler; and that this may come to an end in a snap. Today, you’re a towering figure of physique and fitness; tomorrow could be a different story. It’s not promised.

You hope. You say your prayer without anybody noticing. You reach out to a higher being in spite of all your flaws, faults, and shortcomings, Because the situation is beyond the grasp of your hands, of your humanity, of everyone who knows you.

Then, you pause. You can see the minute, fine details. Paths become clearer. Because you believe that everything happens for a reason. You try to make sense of the test you’re faced with. With the waves of life arriving from every direction, it’s facile to forget the essence of one’s existence. Sometimes, in order for us to be reawakened and to reevaluate our decisions, our steps, and our mindset, inexplicable events have to transpire. And right there, in the mist of confusion, doubts, and tears, is where we can only genuinely ruminate what we’re made of.

In the hit thriller movie, A Quiet Place, a family must live life in silence while hiding from sightless extraterrestrial creatures with hypersensitive hearing, indestructible armored skin and attack anything that makes noise. In parallel to the reality, there are monsters in life that we have to deal with whether we like them or not. We have no idea how they look like, their form, or how they would affect us, but to survive and get through them, we have to stick with our principles and with our loved ones as a unit with trust, courage, and faith. 

In the end, after I had convinced myself to stand in front of the painting and equably fixed it in its place, the doctor informed me that kuya was no longer in the critical state. I expeditiously thanked God for his help and mercy. Then, I took a second look at the painting and discovered that there was a total of twenty-eight kaleidoscopic koi swimming around the imaginary cylinder. To my astonishment, it’s the same number of years I just turned to carry across my name on a frigid morning on my birthday. A coincidence? I refuse to think so. For me, it’s an incalculable gift sent from heaven.

In my grief, I found solace.

Running after a Big Bag Wolf

‘Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate’

HAVE YOU ever been to a novel place where you felt like you want to stay there forever?

That is exactly what I experienced when I arrived at the World Trade Center in Pasay City more than a week ago to chase the first ever Big Bad Wolf event in the country.

It’s the brainchild of BookXcess leads Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng, whose main mission is to extend the doors of opportunity to book readers and book lovers who normally couldn’t afford to buy one.

As soon as I stepped foot on the entrance of the building at around one in the morning, a pleasant aroma greeted me which emanated from the smorgasbord of books stationed per category across the 2-hectare floor area of the venue. The chill in my body was something I’ve never experienced before from the throngs of book sales I had been to.

“This one is different,” I said to myself. “A glimpse of heaven.”

I can still recall how my eyes glowed like the sun when I saw the sea of people walking and running and pushing their carts with the same exhilaration I’ve been curbing inside for days leading to opening day. I even thought for a moment that I was in an airport when I saw that some of the shoppers were carrying large bags and boxes, as if they’re going to travel to a remote destination or roam around the world.

The mood was convivial. Pop songs encompassed the enclosed space. The ushers wore their best smiles and first-rate patience. A stranger handed me his own basket. I unhurriedly checked the piles of titles from the right wing of the entryway to the section close to the center.

I read the texts written on the back covers. I smelled them. Secretly. Memoirs. Novels. Non-fiction.

I bought a total of 8 books for about P1,800: Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, David J. Linden’s Touch, Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, Scott Christianson’s 100 Documents that Changed the World, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of A LionDivisadero, and a winner of the Booker Prize, The English Patient.

While the books being sold at the Big Bad Wolf are “remaindered” and launched about 6 months or one year ago (which is why they are priced 60% to 80% lower than in regular bookstores), I still can’t help but feel sorry for the scarce presence of Filipino literature in this mammoth book sale.

As I was about to pay at the cashier, I thought: “Would it be possible to see Filipino authors’ works being sold and showcased at a colossal and noteworthy affair like this someday? Will they be received the same way as J.K. Rowling and R.R. Martin?”

Truth be told, most of the of books I currently have were written by foreign authors. While I read F.H. Batacan, Bob Ong, Laurel Fantauzzo, and Miguel Syjuco, my ignorance on the content, tone, voice and structure of the worlds created by National Artists for Literature F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin, Cirilo F. Bautista and the others is undeniable. I was in high school when I first heard of their names because we were required to read snippets of their artistry in our Filipino class. But when we graduated, and with no quizzes to take, time passed by, and I forgot about them.

When you visit a branch of the Phlippines’ biggest bookstore these days, the themes of their top selling local books revolve around these 3: how to fall in love, how to move on, and how to be loved by your crush. These are the thin, self-help, mind-numbing books that can leave one to ask: “Hanggang dito na lang ba tayo (Is this all we’re capable of)?

The day after I watched his interview with Boy Abunda for National Arts Month, I swiftly searched for copies of National Artist Virgilio Almario’s poem collections in a luxurious mall just a couple of kilometers away from our home. I was appalled that I did not find any trace of his genius; instead I saw Leavs, Faudets, and Kaurs taking over the shelves.

In the face of globalization, English is considered as the most valuable means of communication. As Filipinos, we take pride in our level of proficiency in this language. But with it comes the growing practice of degrading our roots and creativity, and the maltreatment of Filipino poems, essays, and novels, labelling them as corny, subpar, and insignificant. We have so many writers and creators who are discouraged by the feedback they receive from the people around them. There’s no money in writing. It’s useless. You’ll just be a slave all your life. Don’t waste your time in nonsense. Art is dead.

Jose Rizal once said: “On this battlefield man has no better weapon than his intelligence, no other force but his heart.”

Literature and the arts are the soul and heart of a country. They help us unravel some of the unspoken, subdued, and hidden truths around us so that we may understand ourselves better and be introduced to the richness of our history, which will fuel us to act, reevaluate our views, or change our course if the situation demands for it.

If we do not embrace our own gifts and treasures, and if we forget who we are, we may end up cruising on a highway with no direction or maps as references, and unknowingly get into a collision with our fellow travellers.

Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate. I am convinced that we’re still searching for that spark of transcendence, of the drive to take another sound, earnest look at our dying local publishing industry.

We have to change our mindset that the works of foreign authors are innately superior and finer and more magnificent than what we can produce. We have to debunk the colonial mentality that’s deeply ingrained in our culture, or else we’ll live in an endless search for our identity.

Not everyone can declare that they ran after a Big Bad Wolf at one in the morning on a Saturday. With all the courage I have, I did, and I hope you do, too. Forever.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com’s IMHO on February 24, 2018.)

Photo credit: http://www.bigbadwolfbooks.com

‘Smaller and Smaller Circles’: Circling back, looking closer

‘But years later, can’t we see the almost similar plot and subplots reverberating in our time?’

AFTER RECEIVING a confirmation email from the cinema manager of a posh mall in the metro that they will be showing the much-awaited film adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s novel Smaller and Smaller Circles for two consecutive weeks, I rushed to check my schedule to buy a ticket on its nationwide release the next day. 

I arrived at the cinema early, and got my ticket for the 6:20 pm showing. With no smartphone to utilize the free WI-FI while waiting, I decided to have a look at the latest book titles at the bookstore adjacent to the cinema. I saw Murakamis, Ishiguros, Gladwells, Leavs, Kaurs on the shelves while I was languidly gliding along the rows and rows of books. Then, I was greeted by Smaller.

It has been over a month now since I last finished reading the book the second time. Yes, that was not our first encounter.

In my attempt to start a conversation with Pat – who would turn out to be my senior high school best friend – while we’re waiting for our next class one crisp afternoon, I asked for the theme of the intriguing book she was holding. I was then sitting on the aisle seat behind her, on the second row. While our other classmates were busy throwing crumpled papers in the air, or talking about their treasured online computer game, or reviewing our lessons for the exam the coming week, I was hooked on the book’s front cover showing a face of a strange man in black background. Published in 2002 by the University of the Philippines Press, it’s the UP Jubilee Student Edition of Batacan’s novella.

“It’s about a serial killer in the slums of Payatas” she said. “The poor victims are pre-teen boys. Do you want to have a look?” Thrilled, I responded, “Sure, thanks!”

I flipped through the pages, glimpsed at the texts written on the back cover, and started reading the book.

Pile of trash. Small, pale, unmoving hand. Mangled corpse. Genitals removed. Peeled face. Mutilated beyond recognition.

It was as if I was taken to a familiar place in cinematic details that I couldn’t move. I froze for a moment. My classmates vanished. The noise transformed into silence. The walls of the classroom have been silently destroyed by the maggots coming out of the boy’s body. And just like that, my heart and my mind were in unison.

Equipped with a two-volume dictionary at home, I intently read each sentence. The author used words I’ve never encountered before. It was a struggle. It was new to me. It was gripping.

Transfixed, I still remember how I intensely tried to hide my emotions. I wanted to cry. Again and again, I reminded myself that it’s fiction, that there’s no way it’s happening; there’s no chance.

But years later, can’t we see the almost similar plot and subplots reverberating in our time?

A pattern on the killings involving teenage boys which was allegedly done to sabotage the current administration’s war on drugs surfaced on the news. Some government officials, who because of the pressure to deliver and exhibit results to their bosses and to the public, purportedly plant evidence and falsely declare innocent, powerless individuals as the murderer, the perpetrator, the killer by conducting brutal tortures and wreak death threats. Some priests and authorities of the Catholic Church, who tell themselves that they carry the truth and that they serve as the guardians of the moral fiber of the society up to this day, ostensibly conceal their unrighteous acts, abuse minors and the weak, and improperly use their influence and power for their advantage.

With all these lurking on our plate, when are we going to wake up?

Frustrated that not so many people showed up in the opening day of the movie adaptation of Smaller, I searched for the Instagram account of award-winning director Brillante Mendoza for consolation. On that same day, he posted: “Film is an art and you cannot expect everyone to appreciate art. You just have to accept that this is the audience that you have. We cannot do anything about it.”

Literature and the arts bring us to places we’ve never been before. They show us perspectives that can shed light to some of the subtle, the hidden, and the unspoken ideas around us; that we may pause to look closer and circle back to the abhorrent fragments of our past to keep them from happening again.

We still have a long way to go but I hope that we’ll someday give time and investment to our quality locally produced films no matter how long or short or wherever the line is.

(This piece has been published in Rappler.com. Opinion, IMHO on the 11th of December 2017.)

Tanaw

Pilit niyakap ang katahimikan
sa pagitan, sa kawalan ng
salita na nag-uugnay sa
mga kaluluwa

Naglaho ang dating pagsinta,
ang galak sa puso sa tuwing
naririnig ang tinig, ang
tuwa na hindi maisaysay
ng bibig

Dumarating ang araw na
gaya ng magnanakaw –
pino ang kilos, tumakas ang
kaluskos, ‘di mabanaag na
pagbabadya

Dito natatapos ang lahat –
sa paggapos sa idinidikta
ng puso, sa pagkitil sa pagasa
ng pagsasama, sa pagtitig sa mata
nang ilang sandali pa at ang pagtalikod
sa mga pangarap na hinabi ng panahon

Nagtatalo ang isip kung saan nagkamali,
kung anong dapat baguhin, ang dapat ibawas
at idagdag sa sarili, bagama’t nalalaman na
wala nang iba sapagka’t iniisip na ang pagdating
ay dulot ng taimtim na paghihintay,
sa pagiwas, sa kusang pagtalima

Nguni’t ipakikilala ng araw ang
nakatakda, ang nararapat maganap, ang
hindi maabot ng tanaw, ang nasa
malayo – ang hiling
sa dalangin.

The Rain

He’s the rain thundering
your entire
rooftop

The tiny drop gently
sliding down
your window

He escapes from the glow
coming out of
your lamp

A sensation, a warmth as you
press your fingertips on
the glass

He’s clinging into
it, holding on a
little longer

Losing grasp,
he leaves
quietly.

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

– W. H. Auden, January 1939