Are you awake?

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!

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Denial is not a river in Egypt

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.

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Pain

IMG_1865I’ve been weaning myself off of Hydrocodon, a powerful narcotic that relieves one’s body of pain. The doctor said to take it every four hours after the surgery and “as needed.” You realize its power only after it wears off, and you are left immobilized by the sharp shooting pain in your injured body part. For awhile there, I was pain-free, even my tennis elbow, cramped fingers, and sprained ankles seemed magically healed. However, this drug, while really effective, also causes addiction and constipation, two undesirable side effects. I find reading, writing, or watching TV good distractions from the pain. I don’t realize I’m hurting until I find myself clutching my wounded breast as if to brace it from being physically assaulted. I told my friend, it’s like the pain after getting a tattoo, except it is inside, the carved flesh beneath the skin. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have the entire breast surgically removed.

I think it’s comforting to know what your body feels even if that feeling is of agony.  How many times have we wallowed in our pain to indulge our broken hearts or bruised ego, listening to stupid love songs, reminiscing on the good times we had that are now like pins and needles poking our psyches. We become willing voodoo dolls, conspiring in our own misery. I find that the best time to get a tattoo, as far as pain management is concerned, is when one is heartbroken or is steeped in shame and regret. During those times, pain manifests itself in blood-stained lines and colors that converge in a beautiful yet macabre revelation. It is happening outside one’s body, not inside, where one does not have control. I remember cutting as a teenager, my arm a veritable score board of the times I had felt rejected or violated, whether real or imagined. It was quite a trip to see blood dripping from a self-inflicted wound. At that moment, it was as if my consciousness was split and I was watching myself bleed; and I would cry, not for the pain but for the liquid part of me that was being spilt. The keloid scars have since been covered by a wind-rustled cherry blossom tree.

Pain begets pain. This much I know is true. The physical pain of my lumpectomy stirs up feelings of inadequacy and frustration. It inhibits me from doing what I am used to doing on a daily basis, like cooking, washing dishes, cleaning the litter, vacuuming. I have embraced these mundane chores as part of my mommy persona, and so when I could not perform them, I feel incompetent as a mother. I forget that being a mother is more than just my spinach quiche and pot roast or my ability to sew. Times like these, kindness becomes such a soothing salve. My daughter offering massages, helping with clearing the dishwasher, my husband getting off work early to take us out to dinner, my friend Anna coming in the morning to help cook for the kids…

It is such a cliche but it’s true how pain reminds us of our humanity, allows us to remember that life is precious, that every day is not guaranteed, and that to breath and take up space on this earth is a privilege. It humbles us to feel pain because we are reminded that we need each other.

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The Incredible Healing Power of Family, Friends, and Furry BFFs

And so it has come to pass that I have somewhat of a cancer, but it is at its nascent stage. Just enough to indulge my flair for the dramatic, but not enough for me to drop everything and start writing the quintessential novel of my generation. Hah! As if having less time would actually enhance my abilities. If anything, it might just justify my propensity for wasting time –  checking FaceBook and Instagram feeds, online shopping, losing something important (like keys and Billy Joel concert tickets)  and then turning drawers and cabinets inside out to look for it, and, of course, binge-watching. Truly. Because life is too fucking short to waste not knowing if fair-haired Daenerys is coming back with her dragons to rescue the Meereneese in Slaver’s Bay. I literally have a journal entry that read, “Well, now that I have cancer, it wouldn’t hurt to see the last three episodes of ‘Penny Dreadful’ back to back; never mind if I still have some grading to do.” That was the start and the end of that entry. Since I’ve gotten my  somewhat malignant result, I’ve finished eight episodes of “Stranger Things,” two seasons of “Penny Dreadful,” the new season of “Wentworth,” the first season of “Humans,” and have started bingeing on “Vera.” Way to go, Lani.

It was raining, and I was driving home from work, the day I got a call about my suspicious mammogram. It was my third mammo in less than two years, and when my doctor called, I knew something was not right. There was more calcification and they needed to do a biopsy. It felt strange and surreal, like watching someone else’s telenovela unfold through a rain-splattered screen. Tears welled up and I let go, the way I do when I sing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” in my car at full belt mode. “Thunder only happens when it’s raining/ Players only love you when they’re playing…” I knew then if I did have cancer that I’d be too lazy to post status updates about it, unlike a friend of mine who gave an update every step of the way, taking us on her journey from diagnosis to treatment, everybody sending love and healing vibes with multiple heart emoticons.

It was quite a stirring experience reading her posts, cheering her on, even messaging her on the side to make sure she knows I am there for her, even though we weren’t close, not even good friends, more like acquaintances. But when her status update showed up on my feed, I felt genuinely concerned, and I knew I had to reach out. Then, as soon as she was cancer-free, the likes on her status updates diminished, and since her posts haven’t been showing up on my feed, I can’t even remember the last time I read anything from her. I kept thinking then how Facebook must somehow be making a lot of money when someone is sick, keeping track of the most liked posts and who are making them, but then also, how social media has made us all unwitting witnesses.

My friend Melanya’s visit from Toronto took my mind away from the morbid scenarios in my head. In fact, her visit was just cause for celebration. Everyday. With her doing most of the cooking. “Melanya, you’re on vacation. Stop cooking and cleaning!” I demanded each day of her week-long visit. Of course, deep within, I was just extremely grateful for the break. Same thing happened when my friend Ge visited last year. We just moved then, and it was such a crazy time, with boxes and garbage bags of clothes everywhere. One day, I came home and there she was, on the floor, assembling the massive wooden shelf that I ordered from World Market, wiping the sweat off of her brow, and bracing her back with her blistered hands. “Ge! You didn’t have to,” I kept saying as I helped her put the shelf-that-is-never-going-to-get-moved-again upright in its place.

I told my children one morning during breakfast that if friends were money, then I consider myself the wealthiest woman on earth. Alexa noted how friends and family have been bringing food since finding out that I’m sick or after the surgery, calling or texting to check on me, sending cards and flowers. The first few days after the lumpectomy, my friend Anna just stayed and watched shitty TV in bed with me. “This is what true friendship looks like,” I said. mila

“It is the sweet smell of their breath and laughter and voices calling my name that gives me volition, helps me remember I want to turn away from looking down…” Writer/Activist Audre Lorde’s words ring true almost 40 years since she wrote her book, Cancer Journals, after surviving breast cancer in the late ’70s. She died from liver cancer in 1991. In the book, the black lesbian feminist writer eloquently noted how powerful women’s love and support could be in the process of healing. I’ve been postponing reading the book, which was a foreboding gift from a friend 20 years ago, not by conscious choice but just because I had been too preoccupied. This, despite the fact that Lorde has been one of my favorite poets. In fact, when I opened it for the first time, I was surprised to see prose, not poems. Beautiful, honest, and empowering prose.

At the time, I was debating telling friends and family about my condition. What for? I thought. I’m going to be cancer-free in no time — well, apparently in less than a year if the treatments go as planned. I didn’t want to inconvenience them with my feelings of dread and self-pity. But after reading Lorde’s book, I realized that no, I can’t mope and sulk alone like a depressing martyr or a self-destructive rockstar. It’s true, cancer is no longer the death sentence it used to be. At least not when you’re middle class, have a good health insurance, and are pretty healthy for 50. But it does urge contemplation, a re-direction of energy, and it does beg for attention, if only to remind others to be proactive about their own health. Cancer is an equal-opportunity ball-buster. But with early detection, you could beat its ass down forever! And that’s when I started letting friends and family know beyond my little circle. The outpouring of support has been cathartic to say the least. “(t)here was a tremendous amount of love and support flowing into me from the women around me, and it felt like being bathed in a continuous tide of positive energies…” (Lorde 13).

I would add that my gay boyfriends also came through for me. Louie P, visiting from Ohio, hung out with me as I did errands: grocery shopping, chauffeuring my daughter to cheerleading practice. All he requested was to have roast duck at Sun Wah, lychee bubble tea, and a mind-blowing discussion about semiotics theory. Right. Cesar had cocktails with me three days before my surgery, and Greg and Kiko sent flowers and FaceTimed me after.

I decided to spare my sweet mother the bad news. Although there were moments when I wanted to cry out for mommy, I remember how needlessly she worries about the traffic, her blood sugar level, the leak in the roof, and every small affliction her children and grandchildren could possibly go through.  She’s 82 and has hypertension. I’ll tell her when it’s over. My eldest sister knowing is enough. She, who has always been a source of strength and inspiration.

I really am good. I have a husband who would take a day off to accompany me to MRI, sit through another mammogram, and sleep in the waiting room through my surgery and recovery; kids who would postpone yelling at each other to keep my stress level down; and a cat named Mila who stays by my side, buries her head in my hand, and lets me comb my fingers through her silky soft fur, when all I need is quiet.

P.S.

Please don’t tell my mom about this blog.

 

 

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Night of the Living Moms

Night of living mom

Parenting, joyful as it is, can be an exhausting, and at times, a zombifying enterprise– particularly when you’re a mother who insists on having an identity beyond mom, mama, nanay, madre, who feels the need to create art, build your community, get your PhD, walk on a wire, and still have the time and energy to tell bedtime stories or make veggie lasagna for a son who decides to be vegetarian after watching a zombie movie… “Night of the Living Moms” is collection of narratives of those who lived to tell… 😉 Please consider supporting this project NOW!!! Thank you!!!! Just click on the link, then support, create your username and password, and pledge!! https://3arts.org/projects/night-living-moms/

 

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Vanity

As it turned out I am more vain and selfish than Angelina Jolie, who had both breasts mastectomized when she found out she has the breast cancer gene. Never mind if her divine bosom showed no sign of cancer. Meanwhile, I insist on keeping the little I have and never mind if my kids lose a mom as a consequence. I love my breasts — there, I’ve said it. A lover took a picture once, enamored by their perfect symmetry, the way they slope gracefully to a perky dark brown nipple, now gone pale and soft… I hate having to wear a bra to hide my eternally erect nipples. T.H.O. Titty-hard-on, a gay friend called this phenomenon. I hate having to wear a bra, period. I feel they are nothing but torture devices created by cruel capitalists, a step ahead of a corsette perhaps, but nevertheless as oppressive. How could something that restricts your breathing and encase your bouncy breasts in wire and spandex be a good thing? A bra has become a hallmark of a civilized society. We are not savages who let everything  hang out. Who cares about sagging breasts when a drought has killed half the potatoes this year?

A lumpectomy might rid the breast of these cancerous cells in my milk ducts, according to my doctors. When before I only had one, now, I have three — a primary doctor, an oncologist, and a breast specialist/surgeon.  Statistics seemed to suggest that women who have never had children and therefore, have never had to breastfeed, have more chances of developing breast cancer. Is it wisdom then, that some of my closest transgender sisters had their mammaries excised? How many times have I heard lovers and friends in the past refer to their breasts as if they are nothing but unwanted fatty flesh?

Ah, but the sensations, the nameless pleasure that one gets from one’s expertly fondled breasts…

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On dying and other concerns after 50

My brother met his untimely demise June 30. Two days after his wife’s birthday and ten days before his 57th birthday. Not that there is such a thing as a timely demise. I don’t even know where that idiom came from. But in light of all the supposedly joyful days surrounding the day of his death, I couldn’t think of a better word to describe it than untimely. He was handsome, quiet, and somewhat of a peacemaker.  Some would argue that he was the most good-looking of the brothers, but there is no doubt that his siblings looked up to him although he was the shortest, literally, and the middle, not the eldest, child. Maybe because he was the youngest to have kids and get married and prove he could be a good family man, unlike the father they knew or hardly knew. The same man as the handsome, quiet dad who cooked arroz caldo for me and rubbed my back with Vicks when I got sick.

My brother’s death brought up memories of long steamy summer days spent at my grandfather’s place in Mandaluyong, a city east of Manila. For some strange reason my grandpa, or Apo as we lovingly called him, doted on me, the bastard child of his youngest son. Maybe it was to compensate for the fact that I was born out of wedlock, which back then was a real stigma. Maybe because he only saw me in the summertime, unlike the countless little grandkids running around his tiny wooden house day in and day out, forming clouds of dust on his dirt floor and crowding his sala as they watched Oras ng Ligaya on his 12 inch TV. Or maybe because I could sing Matt Monro’s “Born Free” on cue and with perfect pitch at 3 years old.

Ever since I can remember, I had looked forward to those summers to reunite with my cousins and friends and engage in unbridled play all day within the hollow blocked walls of the working class compound nestled beside the Pasig River. Such carefree innocent times playing jackstones at Elsa’s house. Lovely and meek Elsa, who died in her 40s of breast cancer. Her sister, Vic, following 10 years later. Also of breast cancer. Or playing pretend games at Benjie’s big house with the watermark on the cement walls, a reminder of a typhoon that caused the river to swell and flood their first floor.

I want to remember her now, Elsa. Soft voice, soft curls, soft… her laughter like short hesitant bursts of sunlight through feathery clouds. I visited her once as an adult and she seemed embarrassed, not as excited as I was to see her it seemed, more concerned about her messy room, messy hair. She had the same smiling eyes, but we were not the same. There was an air of sadness and defeat about her. As if she had given up already. There was no time to talk but I wish I had made time.

Then, her sister, Vic, so beautiful, so handsome, with her killer lashes and James Dean stare. Passing away 10 years later from the same malady. One out of eight women will develop invasive breast cancer, statistics say. Early detection is key to survival. But back home, not many have health insurance, and one goes to the doctor only when one feels sick. By then, it may be too late.

As I write this blog my fingers are tingling, my feet swelling, and when I close my eyes the pain is almost palpable. Ah, to be 50 and somewhat beautiful, yet having tennis elbow when I don’t even play tennis, not even badminton. Sharp pains on my pelvic bone. My knees creaking like bamboo floors with my every step down the stairs. Calcification in my breasts dotting my biannual mammograms. It is unfair to be wiser yet grow older, unable to apply lessons learned from a twisted ankle or a skinned knee. Tried trampoline for the first time in how many years at 53 and spent the next six weeks limping from a sprained ankle. Some peers scolded me, saying I should have known better; they who are in their 30s and 40s, still menstruating, ovaries still fertile, vulvas not needing lubricant.

Part 2

Who knew. Ten days after Butch died I find out I have cancer cells in my left breast. How cruel. I dread the thought of losing my breast. It is one of the very few times that I felt helpless, no control at all of the outcome, like when we kept trying to have a baby and I would have those false positives, and I kept cheering myself up silently as I gave myself a subcutaneous shot of lupron on my thigh every morning.

When I told my childhood best friend, Ge, that I was going to have a biopsy to follow up an abnormal mammogram, she said, “You can’t get cancer. Only rich people get that.”  We laughed, because back home, that’s the truth. I wondered if Vic and Elsa would be alive today if they had more money.

The doctor said I have DCIS — ductal carcinoma in situ. Cancer cells in place. Not moving, not roaming about infecting other cells, staying in one place like a “good wife”. This is supposed to be a blessing, a cause for a close friend to text “yahoo!!!” after I shared my non-benign biopsy result. Since when have cancer cells become good? Is it like good cholesterol? Not harming or causing damage? Just hanging out politely, lurking on the sidelines, not trying to clog arteries? Fish and olive oil versus red meat and barbecue grease? Is it like that?

I must admit, having cancer seemed a bit cinematic. Ali McGraw had leukemia in Love Story and my sister swooned no end as if romance meant “til cancer do us part.” Cancer was the kind of disease you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy because that would be too kind. You see, Hollywood would make you believe that cancer is glamorous and only good-looking people made up to look sick can have it.  But I should know better. In fact the only thing good thing about getting news that you have cancer cells residing in your body is if you have health insurance to get the best treatment!

How am I to have a good sleep when I will see an oncologist tomorrow who will tell me the best treatment for this?

(To be continued)

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