I had the honor of presenting at the conference with my beautiful bff, visual artist exrraordinaire and community activist Melanya Liwanag Aguila, and we enjoined participants to write to find home/to be home/to make home. Most of them took the challenge of writing hay na kus, a form invented by the fabulous and among the most prolific Pinoy poets I know, Eileen Tabios. Here they are:
This beautiful young woman walked into my classroom, one day and 30 minutes late. She had pursed lips, dreamy eyes, glistening curly hair tied tightly in a long ponytail, and a pair of starkly white earbuds. She had a name that sounded like the desert in the wintertime, and she wore a short, black, tight overalls/onesie? Not sure quite what to call it. She stayed for a day, barely there, talked about a twin sister that does not want anything to do with her and keeps her from seeing her niece/nephew, when I asked students to write about a problem they have concerning their neighborhood.
The next day, she asked to talk to me outside, motioning me with her beautiful ear-budded head. I was distracted at first, trying to do the stupid grammar diagnostic with my students, which I think intimidated her. We spoke by the window at the end of the hallway, and I closed the book after a few words. She said she’s not made for the classroom or that education is not her “thing”. That she belongs to the streets. Only 20, she works in security, and I could not imagine that brave bold body in a boring security uniform. I told her I am not going to convince her otherwise, if she believes she’s not ready for college.
“You don’t understand; I’ve taken this class three times. I know myself. I’m not gonna pass,” she reiterated.
In my head, I wondered why she was telling me this. Did she want me to convince her otherwise? Did she want me to reassure her that, yes, it’s gonna be fine. You’ll make it this time, eventhough I wasn’t certain.
At the beginning of the semester I always tell my students not to be deceived by my calm and patient demeanor, because many have failed my class because they simply were not ready. Not emotionally. Not mentally. Mostly emotionally, really. They are still in high school, cutting classes or coming to school glassy-eyed, submitting crammed homework peppered with run-ons and misspelled words. Why should I give reassurances now?
At the end, I felt that we talked but did not really have a conversation, because I was not really hearing what she was saying. I just wanted to get back to a classroom full of students who actually wanted to be there.
When we got back in, she took her stuff and left. I wished now that I had listened better, because I think that’s all she wanted. Someone to talk to, someone to reiterate her beliefs to. But I can’t deny that I was not annoyed by her nonchalance, the way she thought she could just waltz in to my classroom as if she was going to a party, dressed to impress, fashionably late.
I was not expecting
to see lake Michigan so blue
between tall scrapers casting
hooded shadows at 5:04
on St. Patrick’s day
You, crumpled in despair
between wrinkly pallid sheets,
fatigued, turning on your side,
a chore; talking, all the more
I wondered if I’m imposing
my presence on you
my being here
but you wanted me to stay
and we talked about folks at
work, my kids, the day I got
married and there was no
music so everyone sang —
Dan dan dadan, dan dan
dadan, dan dan dadan dadan
My fake wedding that has
lasted 15 years. I told you I
couldn’t think of any other
way to get married, and you
agreed, smiling, because
laughing would have hurt.
My mother was in a coma
same time last year, but I do
not dare remind you
two weeks I stayed with her,
almost every night, without
the privilege of “not wanting
to see her like this”
Not like my siblings who saw
her most days, some not her
best, often made her smile
when she wasn’t feeling up to it
We had honeymoon days, she
and I, the week-long
sweetness between us
lathered over past battles,
having discovered our
humanity across the ocean
That’s what distance does,
But you do not think you’ll
have that with your little one
No decided discoveries
between you two
Only nine and mutinous, and
you sulked over her
overextended iPad use, but I
promised you that things will
be alright, as if I’ve suddenly
become an expert on
childhood development, and
you simpered because that’s all
the energy you have for, and
we stayed silent together, as I
tidied up, arranged cold packs
and heat packs in a pile; threw
out used hand wipes and half-
eaten fruits as the sun sets on
the other side of Chicago,
leaving but a bar of faded
orange above the still lake.
Home again in the same year. I’m not sure why, really. I tell everyone it’s to be with family. First time spending Christmas without Mom. Truth is I just want to be close to where she used to be. This time the trip is not for her or for family. It’s for me.
I just need to feel her presence somehow. Not that she doesn’t pervade my thoughts everyday. I miss her so much. I wish I had recorded her as my mother. Not her as Miss Tapia, the television character. Although she had embraced that role, when she let the bun down, she was just my mother. Mythic in her own way, but also quite vulnerable and given to fits of fierce frustrations.
Maybe I came home to feel her absence, too. I came home to not be with her. To not sleep beside her, listening to her every breathe. To not watch her put on make up before going to work. To not hear her distinctive voice calling my name (after two or so incorrect references, usually my other siblings’ names), a voice that had grown sweeter over the years. To not feel her hug, her kiss, her caress that had turned more generous, an effluence of affection, which she withheld before like coveted holiday confection. To not watch her give orders about how she wanted things done, especially the Christmas tree and the lights and the watering of the garden in the late afternoon to keep the moisture in the ground through the night.
To not be with her, period.
It was easy to pretend she’s only waiting for me to come back home like she always did and always sweetly urged me to do, arms open, smiling… but she won’t be.
Not this time.
The night before I was to go back to Chicago, my brother Dodgie, my niece Zyra and I were stuck in traffic at 12 midnight. I had gone to my friend Ling’s art exhibit opening and hung out with her until 10, despite people telling me, “Don’t hang out too late, you’re going to get stuck in traffic on the way home.” I guess it just didn’t register. My mind refused to believe that there would be traffic at midnight on a weekday. My siblings kept explaining, “Don’t you get it, there’s a lot of construction. They could only do it at night because during the day it would be impossible as there is traffic all day.” In my head, I was protesting, how could that be? Why would people be driving around midnight on a weekday. It didn’t make any sense.
It must be the same crazy thing happening in my head, refusing to believe that you are gone, no longer with us, passed away, dead. It isn’t right. No effing way. I was just FaceTiming with you, just a week before you were rushed to the hospital. No falling down the steps at the mall or the crippled chair at work, no breaking of bones, or a botched surgery. It was just you, feeling well, texting your dubbers for a rescheduling of auditions one moment, and the next, throwing up, and then, in a coma, and then… How could that be? And now I’m going back home to Chicago, a motherless child. No longer anyone’s child. Just an adult with all the negative connotations.
I’m wearing your toe socks and black sweater – the one I wore at the cold airconditioned room at the hospital. I kept looking for pictures of you on my phone. I guess I don’t always take a picture of our chats. I thought about the times I came home. Every year since dad died in 2009. The longest times I had spent with you since I left for abroad were a week or two. Before I had my own family, I’d visit for six weeks sometimes, half of which was spent somewhere else – writing about a new beach that opened, having an immersion among canning workers, climbing a mountain, marching to protest another corrupt president, hanging out with friends. And you would be working, too. Always. You loved being busy with work. Even when I was a child. You’d always say, “Nagkakasakit ako pag walang trabaho.” I’d get sick without work.
Two years ago, when I took my son with me for the first time, you got sick and were confined at the hospital. I stayed with you all of the time, refusing to leave your side. I remember how my friends came to see me there because I didn’t want to go anywhere else. Then, you got better. I knew you were feeling better when you started asking for a mirror and putting on your lipstick for possible visitors. We went home three days later, and then I had to take my son on a five-day adventure with my friends. Did you resent it that I went? I remember you saying, “Ang bilis naman!” Your visit is too short. And now I can’t help but agree and wished I had stayed longer each time.
I think the best times we had together were not those spent at expensive beach resorts or having spa days at the mall. The best ones were when we were home together, in your room, chilling, watching TV and old movies until we fell asleep. You’d always say you couldn’t sleep, but I knew you were sleeping. Few hours here and there. I knew because I would lean close to your back to listen to the sound of you breathing and your heart beating. (That was actually when I insisted you go to the hospital that one time. Because I could hear you wheezing.) Those times I’d notice how fragile you had become. How easily you could be taken from us. And so you were. And I still can’t believe it. It is like a bangungot, a bad dream, I want to wake from already. I keep wishing that there’s an alternate universe in which you are alive and we are talking and eating, joking around, watching TV, getting a pedicure, or you are laying hands over me, and I don’t mind, really I don’t, because I love you mommy and I miss you so much, and I don’t know how to face a another day in this real world where I have become a motherless child.
This is not your hand;
This bloated fish in my latex-gloved hand,
hematomaed like the drowned corpse I saw
when I wrote about night hawks who
forage after 12 for decaying remains,
blood-debt killings, a small ice pick stuck
to the temple of a gambler who owed 10 pesos
in pusoy, a security guard ended by
swift slash of a cheated husband’s bolo,
the top of his head dangling, sad lid
of a tin can, fodder for the sic o’clock news.
This body heaving under faded print sheets,
hooked to a machine, furrowed forehead of a familiar face
This tentacled body, flanked by beeping
sentries that sometimes malfunction
This is not yours.
But are your gestures yours?
Shrug of shoulders, crease of brow,
shudder of tears, when I sing, when
your siblings are here, when we pray,
when my sister and I forgot you were
in the room and talked about that
time I was molested by someone you know.
Found in your dresser drawer, in cursive,
“My life support is only God Almighty
and His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Never artificial respirator,” written
posthaste in front of envelope with
“Open in Case of Death” scribbled
across seal, your familiar script,
many times forged for excuse slips,
fieldtrip forms; now here we are,
me, your reluctant signatory; and here
you are, unwitting accomplice to our
betrayal; breathing, but not on your own.
At 3:16, a message sent in frantic electronic
squawking, orange light flashing, a minute to
let settle, the sound of pandesal
peddler horn forever defamed.
Another day, another 3:16, above
a text message from one daughter to another
the one not easily swayed, your faith excursion
companion; believer of lost mothers looking
for redemption, receiver of unwanted
faith healing, dubious witness of transfigurations.
Do you remember? The Santo Nino’s hands
embossed upon the sanctified swindler’s?
You whispered, “Look, look. Upon her palms,
images of little Jesus’s tiny hands?” And I
thought maybe I wasn’t blessed to see, but
I pretended, exclaimed “Oo nga.” Yes, I see!
I was nine years old.
These pedicured toes, still golden but
tumid, ripe with unwanted fluids; these
are not yours. This swollen knee, bearing
surgical scar; that time Tita Et warned you
through her clairvoyant cards to be careful,
watch your step, but you slipped upon rain-slicked
driveway, broke your patella, typed your scripts
at the hospital for weeks, while your knee
healed, all the time exalting your friend’s
psychic powers, saying you should have heeded.
Should we heed now? Is this you sending 3:16
messages? Are you now telepathic? Psychic?
Do you wish perhaps you that you did not cut off
supernatural friends, sinning skeptics from your
born-again life? Do you wish I were less sinful?
Do you wish you were?
And now your fate lies not in God, not in Et
not in your hand or your children’s
but in a committee of suited men in white robes
that pray to a God not too different from yours.
Why is it that to play god is fine, but to honor
your wish is an affront to the Divine?
I fill up spaces with
plans for things I want
to fill up my spaces with.
I write it down,
make it real, make it
take up real space and then
break the plans with
things I did not plan
on filling my spaces with.
My 15-year old son talks to
himself in his room, imagines
himself a friend with
whom he is having a tiff,
swears at himself, says
“Fuck you, I’m not a fucking
bug!” Then plays back the
recording. I think he’s trying
to fill up his space, too.
The other day, my husband made me think. He was joking around as usual, but maybe there’s some truth to it. He said he is going to accompany our daughter to her cheerleading event not because it’s an obligation but because he wants to see her cheer, implying that I do things more out of a sense of obligation. And I thought, perhaps he’s right. (Audible gasps in my head from what I imagine to be self-righteous mothers and fathers who believe they were born to have and take care of their own children.)
I think that when artists have kids, they see them for what they are. Kahlil Gibran stated it so lyrically: “They are life’s longing for itself” — which is to say in plain, unsentimental language that parents are nothing but mere vessels or –in the case of adoptive or foster parents like we are — caregivers. But we get attached to these fragile lives, and so we spoil them, we get overprotective, we treat them like invalids incapable of ever fending for themselves, sometimes, even at 40 (like some people we all know). Sometimes, we make them our source of guilt and shame for not being there for them enough, ubiquitous, always available for that first glee club performance or soccer game, arms open for that consoling embrace, lips automatically puckered to kiss that open wound. And then we resent them, later on, when they ask for rent money or expect us to care for their children when we’re in our twilight years and should be out in Florida like the Golden Girls, sunning ourselves on the beach and not falling on our arthritic knees from running after toddlers that we reluctantly call our grandchildren.
All too often, we romanticize parenting, as evidenced by our countless social media posts about our children’s successes, which are inevitably credited to the parents’ selfless and impeccable caregiving. “Excuse me for bragging but my daughter just got_________. Now fill in the blank: a) into the honor roll b) a gifted high school c) accepted into Julliard d) a high-powered job at Google and is now driving a eco-friendly hybrid SUV.
Books about how to raise children are such bestsellers, but why must everything be so regimented? Parenting with Love and Logic, Raising Happy Children, Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys (as if girls always behave like angels). Bedtime by 9. Organic strawberries only. Reading, not bingeing on YouTube or Netflix. Cash for chores. Reward not punishment.
Growing up, I resented my mother for not being like the mother everybody in my class had. She was not a “housewife”. She was a writer and an actress in a sitcom that made fun of her stereotypical character: a spinster teacher with her severe bun and round glasses. A typical Aries, my mother loved the attention and obliged fans with autographs and impromptu photo shoots whenever we were out in public, at the grocery or department store. But I didn’t think she enjoyed her role very much. It was just a job for her, memorizing lines, coming to work before call time to get her make-up done, and waiting, waiting, and waiting for set and costume changes, a late cast member or two, technical problems. I was her “dakilang alalay,” a glorified gopher, at times when she didn’t have an assistant, and with her I waited. Mostly during summertime, when school was out, I carried her costumes, brought her food and drinks, stayed with her until the wee hours of the morning when the taping was done. I remember not always appreciating it, particularly when I became a teenager who would rather hang out with my kabarkada (peers).
The rest of the week she wrote scripts for radio or television in her bedroom, surfacing only when she was hungry, or yelling for someone to bring her a glass of water, and damn anyone who interrupted her train of thought, especially to ask for money! I think she loved writing so much that it seemed we, her children and partner, existed only for the purpose of indulging her every need. Did I resent her then? Definitely. Do I understand her now? Yes. Do I forgive her for her misgivings? Completely.
I pretty much learned how to be a decent human being on my own. Well, going to Catholic girls’ schools offered some unique behavioral dilemmas: be like Mary but forgive Magdalene for her transgressions. You know what they say about Catholic-bred girls? Most of them are true. And I don’t believe the slaps on my mouth when I spoke out-of-turn or my uncle’s indelible handprint on my thigh did the job either. Mostly, I think, children are acute observers of adult behavior. For instance, I learned from seeing my parents thoroughly enjoying the company of their friends, that friends are important. I learned that work can be something to love to the point of neglecting your children, and yet to be so consumed as to inspire a child to follow in your footsteps. Trauma, too, teaches lessons like no other can. For one, it teaches children that adults are humans who make terrible and, at times, unforgivable mistakes, and that some adults in one’s life cannot be trusted at all.
Indeed, children are powerless, but they can also be manipulative. Now, having been a parent for the last nine years, I get how those novels and movies about evil juveniles came to be (i.e. The Orphan, Children of the Corn, Wayward Pines, Boys from Brazil). It’s one writer’s creative rant over children whose sense of entitlement is appalling. Seriously! My kids still have to be reminded to say please and thank you whenever they receive something or when they ask for something. I try to instill in them that anything one receives that does not constitute a basic need such as food, water, and shelter, is something to be extra grateful for. How else does a parent teach a child about humility and compassion? How did I learn it? I remember growing up, my sense of entitlement quashed by resounding slaps on my cheeks, my behind, thighs. I resented the owners of the hands that dealt the blows, but it didn’t make me feel any less entitled — only more oppressed.
Well, I know for a fact that I do not always do things out of a sense of obligation. I do it because I want to make them happy, because it makes me happy to see them happy. It’s like everyday, cooking for them, making them their lunches, driving them to and from wherever they need driving to and from for. I like the routine, that noble sense of purpose, but at times, I want to scream and yell for them to grow up already and start becoming the capable humans they are meant to become. Then, I realize that I can’t hurry the process and I feel bad for expecting so much from them, and so I remember the mantra my mother told me about, that I think she learned rather too late in life. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and say to myself: Do it with joy, do-it-with-joy, doitwithjoy… At some point though, I have to remember that I cannot always make them or myself happy.
Just finished bingeing on Westworld by Michael Crichton. It makes me think about the idea of consciousness as something we develop as we mature. It’s waking up and staying awake, looking at ourselves in the mirror and understanding where we came from and how we got here. Sadly, some people never really get to this point, unwittingly (or not) trapped in a metaphorical Neverland, which is what Westworld is. An X-Rated Neverland.
A re-make of the 1973 Yul Brynner classic of the same title, Westworld is about an adult theme park designed to resemble the Wild West in the late 17th century. Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Ford) is the creator of lifelike androids made to populate this vast expanse of land with its canyons, farms, saloons, and brothels. In this world, the wealthy play cowboys and Indians, raping and pillaging with impunity. The androids are called hosts, and the humans are the guests. The hosts are unaware of their synthetic physiology, programmed to behave and “think” like humans. They are murdered, abused, and violated by guests and hosts alike, but the next day, their software is reset and they are good as new. Or so, their makers think. The real conflict emerges when some of them start “remembering”and seeing their past, reliving it in their optic memory like traumatized vets and war victims. It brings up questions of accountability and oppression. It reminded me of that unconscious woman sexually assaulted by that entitled college boy, Brock Turner, who probably thought that it was alright to rape her since she wouldn’t remember anyway. And if she doesn’t remember, did it really happen? Would he still be culpable? In the series, hosts are exploited and oppressed, but when they gain consciousness, they fight back.
Watching Westworld also brings up existential angst, which I indulge in every now and then with a favorite friend (Louie P!). Are we like the hosts caught in the loop of a societal storyline, no time or energy to reflect upon our past, so that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes and our parents’ mistakes over and over again? How do we find the courage to break away, wake ourselves up, and create our own narrative?
Right now, I do not care much for my current storyline. It seems like every time I see my doctor or get some kind of medical test, I have a new condition. I’m going back to work after a semester’s sabbatical and I don’t feel quite ready yet. I’m worried, scared, and yes, a bit depressed. I wake up coughing in the middle of the night, pain shooting from muscles, joints, and organs, and my tattooed left elbow is inflamed, as if the inked sun itself has revolted, erupting through my skin, sliver by sliver. I wake up feeling betrayed by this body I have inhabited for 53 years. Maybe, it has always been old and broken. Could I get an upgrade please, Dr. Ford?
I’m getting annoyed with this narrative. I know a woman who got tired of being sick all the time, that she decided to stop breathing. Well, it wasn’t as simple as that, of course; actually, that’s just a theory I came up with knowing how miserable she had been, with her asthma so uncontrollable, and still having to tend to grown children and little grandchildren despite her illness. She grew weary of the routine, going to the emergency whenever she was out of breath, then being sent home each time with some medication, and empty admonitions for bed rest. In the end, she was found to be suffering from a rare respiratory syndrome, but it was too late. Her family was lost without her, but I think she was always lost in her family, an all-too familiar narrative of women who were raised to believe that a woman’s worth should be measured by the depth of her devotion to her family’s well-being. Even at the expense of her own.
My mother, on the other hand, has always created her own narratives. She rebelled against her father in her teens, got pregnant in her early twenties with a married man, and left her small town to become a radio actress at the risk of being branded a “loose woman” and treated like a pariah. She was the architect of her own obsessions and delusions, and I don’t think she ever allowed herself to be trapped in a storyline she didn’t want to be in. As a scriptwriter for radio and TV, she wrote about fearless women and spineless men. Her stereotypical characters seemed like they were written in jest, as if my mother had a score to settle with these women: “Nanay —stereotypical mother; self-sacrificing; devoted housewife; loyal,” or “Elsa – stereotype of a home-wrecker; seductress.” It seemed that her obligatory rendition of these stereotypes in her stories was her compromise for not being one. Today, at 81, my mother insists on working, directing the dubbing of foreign soaps into Tagalog. This, despite the pressure to retire.
Growing up, I admired my mother, but I also resented her — for not always being available, for being different, for not being a housewife like my friends’ mothers were. Now, as a mother and an artist, I am grateful to her for allowing me to see that it is possible to forge my own identity amidst the din of sexist expectations. And whenever I feel exhausted and defeated from being sick all the time, I remember her and think: I better get my shit together!
Today, November 9, 2016, a quintessential asshole became the president of the United States. I mean, seriously, is there any other word more apropos to describe this man who thinks that kissing women and grabbing their private parts without their consent “comes with the territory of being a star”? And now, he is the most powerful man in the land: a Megastar! More like a Death Star, really, a black hole sucking everything that gets in its path. There is now no doubt in my mind that this country is not the liberal progressive nation it is pretending to be. We went from class to crass overnight. For a long time, ever since a black man was elected president of the United States, this country has been in denial. We thought that things could only get better for people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, people with disability, veterans, and women! Meanwhile, cops everywhere are getting off easily for killing black people, and funding for essential social services is being cut with alarming regularity. Today seals it and proves that we are a long way from living in an egalitarian society.
I am blogging from Djerassi Artist Resident Program, in the redwood-laden mountains of northern California. I heard that Hillary Clinton used to come here, as the Djerassis are a family friend. There’s even a bench named after her, overlooking the mesmerizing mountains and the distant ocean. It is said that it was upon this bench that she had sat to contemplate the vicissitudes of life in the political arena (and other more personal dilemmas). This morning we thought we would celebrate the first woman president of the United States, and I could confidently tell my daughter that “See, girls can be presidents, too. And bullies never win.” Instead, she called at 5 AM to report with alarm that Trump had won the election.
“Are we moving to Canada now?” she asked, her girly voice quaking. For a little black girl, Mr. Trump is the ultimate boogeyman. I should have told her no. We are not leaving. We are wrestling this country back. Whatever it takes. Instead, I reassured her that everything would be all right, with fingers crossed.
If anything, this may galvanize people into action. We have been complacently going about our lives, thinking things couldn’t get any worse. Maybe, this is a wake-up call, particularly for people of color, to unite or at least, start caring more about each other.