An attempt to make sense of things in a random universe, one Friday at a time.

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Location: Philippines

Leaving my footsteps for you to find and follow, my love.

31 January 2006

Truths and consequences

Ian Casocot’s latest blog posting speaks about early works, old books we’ve written, and uneasy reminders of the unspeakable things we have done in our youth. My own first cringe-y moment came two years ago when I walked into Prof. Gemino Abad’s office in the UP Faculty Center, with a copy of his book A Makeshift Sun under my arm, ready to ask him to sign it for me, and then saw a copy of my own first book, Awakenings (New Day Publishers, 2001), in his bookcase. There it was, its black spine looking flimsy, lost, and naïve, between A Native Clearing and The Complete Poems of Pablo Neruda.

I was mortified. I wondered how he came to have that book in his book case. I wondered why he stuck it at that place, because my own bookshelves have an authorial order to them. I would never place Gabriel Garcia Marquez beside Jerry Seinfeld unless I wanted to humiliate both of them, and I don’t know about Neruda, but Sir Jimmy did not seem a bit offended at all that his monumental book was sitting beside something, well, far less monumental. Far, far less.

I wondered if he ever read my book. I wondered if it would be a good idea to ask. Or maybe I should pretend it wasn’t me who wrote it. Should I turn around and run away? Why did I even get that book published, anyway? What was I thinking?

So I gritted my teeth and asked him, in a very small voice, “Sir Jimmy, how come you have a copy of my first book?

“Which one?” he put down his glass of brandy and walked over to his book case.

“That one,” I pointed to it.

He opened his book case and took out the book. The space it had left looked puny, inconsequential.

“This one? Oh, you wrote this?” he turned the book over and over in his hands, smiling. I knew he had read it, and I knew that he probably gave up after the first two or three essays, perhaps even just after the first paragraph of the preface. I dared not even ask.

“It’s not very polished. I wrote it when I was ninteen,” I said, silently thanking every single one of Sir Jimmy's kindness genes.

“Oh, don’t worry. Almost all first books have a purpose.”

“I guess so,” I said, and looked on sadly as he put the book back between A Native Clearing and The Complete Poems of Pablo Neruda. It was just the sorriest place in a bookshelf to place Awakenings.

I thought I got over that by the time my second book, Little Freedoms (Giraffe Books, 2003) was released. The writing was less flighty, the essays were longer, and the author was less of a writing klutz. For a while, I basked content in that conviction. Perhaps it helped that I have not read the essays in Little Freedoms since it had been released.

Until Ubod.

Oh. My. God. I felt that same mortification, that same chill running up my spine, that same heat burning in my cheeks, and that same desire to be swallowed alive by a heaving, broken earth. I drove over to Intramuros in the middle of January to pick up my fifty free copies of the chapbook from offices of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, ran back to where my car was parked outside the main entrance of the Manila Cathedral, read the introduction by Sylvia Mendez Ventura, and, right there, inside my car, in front of the Manila Cathedral, I died.

The kind, compassionate Sylvia Mendez Ventura had the good manners to speak well of my essays in her introduction, but I get the feeling that she had to take a deep breath and rummage for a while in her treasure chest of kind words to pull it off. The last paragraph to her introduction says:

The virtue of an informal essay comes not so much from its subject as from its writer. It is the writer’s personality that shines forth in her writing style, reflecting her emotions, whims, moods, and turns of thought. Thus Maryanne Moll can say, in all honesty, “My essay is myself.”

Well, four years after I had written the darned thing, this much I know. My essay is NOT myself. At least those essays are not the me that I am now. Not anymore. I don’t even write essays for traditional publication anymore. Aside from this blog and from that one rare time when I was really fired up over some issue last year (see Soaring Ineptitude) I have practically stopped writing essays altogether.

Now it’s fiction I write. There’s less of me that’s revealed in fiction, and I find that more comfortable. Also, fiction moves with the times. There are always various ways of interpreting a short story, depending upon the generation and sensibility from which it is being read. The published essay is pretty much like a skin tattoo: It makes sense when you get it, because it’s vibrant and so you, but when you grow older it starts to look rather frumpy, pretentious, and so not you, and so you just either keep it under your clothes or spend 50,000 pesos to get it surgically grafted out of your system. The difference between the published essay and a tattoo, however, is that with a published essay, you can’t do that.

I would love to have commisserated with other Ubod Writers at the grand launch last 6 December 2005 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, basking in shared embarrassment, but I was in Naga with a bad case of arthritis. And then I realized perhaps it was just as well. The Ubod chapbook took three years to release. To have gone there would have been to stare at myself, from aeons ago, being taken seriously only now, and I don’t even like my ideas from four years ago. I remember Ian texting me as he was going over his camera-ready material for Ubod. “Ugh. How barriotic!” he said of his work. At that moment, I could not think of a word to top that. Now, I still could not. Oh, wait, maybe barok.

In life, we have old clothes, old shoes, old bags, old crushes, things that we were crazy about then but are horrified at the thought of now. (i.e. How could we even have thought that embudo jeans were fabulous?) But with writers, it doesn’t end there. We have early published work. That is what we get for publishing too young, too early, too soon. We have cast our vanity and naivete in stone, and we shall forever be judged through it. Oh, the horror! The sheer, copyrighted, ISBN-ed horror!

I flipped through the Giraffe Little Freedoms just a couple of days ago, when the mortification from reading the Ubod introduction had faded away to a faint, dying shame. Yes, my essays there WERE myself at that time. But now, who knows who I am? I have moved on from those two books, I suppose, clinging to my fiction the way mold clings to moist and decaying wood. I am moving away from my past, one book at a time. This time I am carefully choosing my truths, carefully choosing my consequences, so that in three years, ten years, twenty years, or sixty years, when I come face to face again with all my previous work, i can stare back at into the eyes of all the pasts I have left behind and say that they have all been worth the words, the paper, the launch, the wait.

24 January 2006

Between pith and bark

For the man in my life, whose favorite wood is jarrah.

Between pith and bark lies wood. It is the hard, fibrous substance that conducts water and holds the storage tissues of the branches, stems, and roots of trees. Wood has two parts: sapwood -- the outer part that’s next to the bark and is the living and physiologically active wood, pale in color -- and heartwood, the dark inner core. The heartwood performs the function of support for the tree and is drier than the sapwood. As the tree grows older, the heartwood widens and widens until the tree becomes mostly heartwood inside.

Wood has always been underrated, but it is, in fact, at the heart of every human structure. It is stronger than many metals, and its integrity is inviolate, even as it is reshaped, molded, subjected to heat and cold, and cast under the shadow of man’s visions. Wood is worked easily with tools, including fire, and lends itself well to fabrication without losing its qualities and identity. It can be cut, carved, engraved, bleached, polished, coated, filled, drilled, turned, dowelled, jointed, planed. It can either resist compression or allow itself to be compressed, resist bending or allow itself to be bent. It can be impregnated with chemicals, or it can be cut into veneers; it can be whole timber, or it can be ground into powder. It can even become fire, become smoke. But it will always be wood. Imagine, live fibers silently enduring the elements and bearing the weight and pain of changes. First an infinitesimal, molecular groaning, adjusting, accepting, obeying, believing, in larger and larger heaves and circles, until finally, the wood is not what it once was, is beyond what it once was, but still undeniably, irrevocably wood.

Working with wood has been part of human activity since the dawn of time. Wood has fed, clothed, sheltered, and warmed civilization. It has been to war as ships and as fuel for propeller engines. During peactime, wood-hewn ships have transported millions of tons of human productivity, including wood itself. It has provided the foundation for cities and has linked islands together. It has even threaded time together, has held time in monumental esteem that the oldest existing proof of man’s struggles and passions are those that are made of wood, testimonies to an eternity of pain and triumph.

It is amazing how something so solid can be as malleable, almost liquid in its benefits. No other material has satisfied as many human needs and whims; no other material is as organic, as ancient and as alive. For this reason wood has been woven into human life so seamlessly and so inevitably, rendering it omnipresent yet almost invisible, hidden behind the bark of practice, like love that is the heartwood of human sensibility. Like my love that has grown dark and strong and inviolate, heartwood that has grown large and wide, spanning continents, beyond all groaning, beyond all pain.


Entre la moelle et l'écorce

"Between pith and bark" in French

Pour l'homme dans ma vie, dont le bois préféré est jarrah.

Entre la moelle et les mensonges d'écorce en bois. C'est la substance dure et fibreuse qui conduit l'eau et tient les tissus de stockage des branches, des tiges, et des racines des arbres. Le bois a deux parts : aubier -- la partie externe qui est à côté de l'écorce et est la vie et le bois physiologiquement actif, pâlissez en couleurs -- et duramen, le noyau intérieur foncé. Le duramen exécute la fonction du soutien de l'arbre et est plus sec que l'aubier. Pendant que l'arbre vieillit, le duramen s'élargit et s'élargit jusqu'à ce que l'arbre devienne la plupart du temps duramen à l'intérieur.

Du bois a été toujours sous-estimé, mais il est, en fait, au coeur de chaque structure humaine. Il est plus fort que beaucoup de métaux, et son intégrité est inviolée, même pendant qu'elle est remodelée, moulé, soumis à la chaleur et froid, et fonte sous l'ombre des visions de l'homme. Du bois est travaillé facilement avec des outils, y compris le feu, et se prête bien à la fabrication sans perdre ses qualités et identité. Il peut être coupé, découpé, gravé, blanchi, poli, enduit, rempli, foré, tourné, assemblé avec des goujons, joint, surfacé. Il peut résister à la compression ou se permettre d'être comprimé, résister se plier ou se permettre d'être plié. Il peut être imbibé des produits chimiques, ou il peut être coupé en placages ; ce peut être bois de construction entier, ou il peut être rectifié dans la poudre. Ce peut même devenir le feu, deviennent fumée. Mais il sera toujours en bois. Imaginez, les fibres de phase supportant silencieusement les éléments et soutenant le poids et la douleur des changements. D'abord un infinitésimal, gémissement moléculaire, s'ajustant, acceptant, obéissant, croyant, au plus grand et de plus grandes poussées et des cercles, jusqu'à en conclusion, le bois n'est pas ce qui il était par le passé, est au delà de ce qu'était par le passé il, mais toujours indéniablement, irrévocablement en bois.

Travailler avec du bois a fait partie d'activité humaine depuis l'aube du temps. Le bois a la civilisation de Fédéral, vêtu, abrité, et chauffé. Il a dû faire la guerre en tant que bateaux et comme carburant pour des moteurs de propulseur. Pendant le peactime, les bateaux bois-taillants ont transporté des millions de tonnes de productivité humaine, y compris le bois lui-même. Il a fourni la base pour des villes et a lié des îles ensemble. Il a même fileté le temps ensemble, a le temps tenu dans l'estime monumentale que la preuve existante la plus ancienne des luttes de l'homme et les passions sont ceux qui sont faites en bois, témoignages à une éternité de douleur et triomphe.

Il est étonnant comment quelque chose si pleine peut être comme malléable, presque liquide dans ses avantages. Aucun autre matériel n'a satisfait les autant de besoins et caprices d'humain ; aucun autre matériel n'est comme organique, comme antique et comme vivant. Pour cette raison du bois a été tissé dans la vie humaine tellement seamlessly et tellement inévitablement, le rendant omniprésent pourtant presque invisible, caché derrière l'écorce de la pratique, comme l'amour qui est le duramen de la sensibilité humaine. Comme mon amour qui s'est développé foncé et fort et inviolé, duramen qui s'est développé grand et large, enjambant des continents, au delà tout du gémissement, au delà de toute la douleur.

[Through Babelfish]

12 January 2006

I, watcher

I have settled into a rhythm. I wake up every morning and see a man’s face, magnificent in the semi-darkness of the bedroom, and trace my fingers over the features gently. I always wake up to him looking at me, not even waiting for me to awaken, but just looking at me while I’m asleep then when I’m awake. And I, first groggy with sleep and then eventually a little more alert, let my fingers travel over his eyebrows and then his eyelids, and then I let my fingers hover over the tips of his eyelashes and then trace the line of his nosebridge that is a bit crooked which makes his nose veer a little to the left. Then I trace my fingers over his lips, gently, until I reach his chin and his jaw, rough with stubble, and settle my hand on his cheek. Easy does it.

He is a joy to touch. Often, with my hand, I trace a line from his nape, down his shoulders and his back, and all the way down his legs, and see how his body hair varies in length, color, and texture – light and very short and soft along his back, crinkly and darker on his legs. And his legs, long and sinewy, make me wonder how a man could exist in such beauty and proportion. His hands, too, I could write volumes about. I marvel at the way he holds his fork, the way the fork seems to shrink in his big hands, the way his long fingers end in large nails that are of an unusual quality that they seem almost invisible, as if they were melted into the skin. I notice every single detail about him -- the certain way his hair arranges itself when he is a few days from getting a haircut, the way a line forms under his chin when he smiles, and the way the skin around his eyes turn a bit pale when he is drowsy.

Throughout the day I watch him. I could sit perfectly still for hours, just watching him. I have memorized his every move in the morning: his smooth roll away from me to the edge of the bed and his soft exhalation as he hoists himself up, and the way he runs his hand over his hair as he walks to the bathroom. Even the sound of the shower is exclusively his. No other shower can ever sound the same as the water that pours over his body, rinsing his skin of the last traces of sleep.

I watch him as he stands over the stove and looks out the window a split second before he turns the eggs over in the pan. I watch him as he paints the skirting boards, and as he stands in front of a built-in bookshelf and contemplates tearing it down because he just loathes where it is at the moment. I watch him as he looks out the window to the magnolia tree that’s just outside. I watch him in the garden as he waters the plants, and up on the roof as he fixes the lights. I watch him walk in after work, filling the house with his presence. He is so organized that he never just dumps his things on the floor or on just any table or chair. He always walks to the study and places his briefcase exactly where it should be, and goes to the bedroom to take off his shoes. When a storm is due for the night, he closes the windows methodically, beginning with those in the bedroom, and then all the way across the house, one window after the next, one room after the next, and then goes back to check them again. His barbecues are always neatly placed in the center of the grill, and always follow the lines of the grill. He is symmetrical, perfectly balanced. Even his voice resonates with just the right timbre -- not too deep, not too shrill, but perfect enough to cut through distance, through space, and through time, to get to me.

There are little things about him that seem to defy this symmetry. There is his nose, after all, that veers a little to the left. And after he makes the bed, the sheets always appear a bit lopsided, one corner of the bedspread hanging down lower than the other, although he always tugs at it one last time in a futile attempt to make it straight. Yet these little things, irregular as they are, only serve to heighten the perfect balance of the angles and curves, instincts and habits, that make up all of him. This is a symmetry that can only be his, a perfect balance of flesh, air, and electricity that has the ability to awe me with the little things, the details that, though tiny, are never ever insignificant.

This is my rhythm. I watch him everyday, watch him unfold, watch him reveal himself in hundreds of little ways. Because I am here, his life will never go unnoticed. I am witness.

08 January 2006

My street, myself

I live on the third floor of an apartment building that’s in A. Bonifacio Street in Makati but is just one house away from where A. Bonifacio meets Evangelista. I like it here. The streets are alive, well-lit, highly populated, and very noisy 24 hours a day, but when I’m at the third floor, all I ever hear is a gentle, steadily undulating drone, like a man snoring. I find this very comforting as I happen to be a woman who lives alone and who sleeps only five hours a night in a bed half-filled with books and papers. In Evangelista, there’s always a handful of jeepneys in line to take passengers to Libertad and Buendia, people are practically spilling over the sidewalk and into the streets, and an average of five empty taxicabs pass by every minute. Edsa is a two-minute walk away, along a road that glimmers with a 7-11, a 24-hour Mercury Drug, Video City, Yes Wash, Andok’s, Julie’s Bakeshop, Goldilocks, HBC, PNB, Reyes Haircutters, The Look Salon, Pizza Hut, Jollibee, McDonald’s, Chowking, and about ten different pawnshops and twenty cheap cafeterias, and four grills, plus a hundred eload stores and internet cafes and one bingo place with dingy yellow tables where people play alfresco. Add to that a Makati Police Station and a station of the Bureau of Fire Protection, and a hospital.

It’s a street that never sleeps. I sometimes go out at 2 am to buy myself some ice cream, a reward for having labored over a five thousand-word draft, and jeepney barkers still call out, “BuendiaLRTBuendiaLRTBuendiaLRT,” and people would get in, fully dressed and fully awake, bringing their plastic file folders and umbrellas, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to go to Buendia LRT at 2 am. But I am not one to judge. After all, I myself buy ice cream at 2 am.

I love my street. Here I can do my grocery shopping at 6 am with an unwashed face and not be judged. Here I can walk while wearing my last smelly pair of jeans before laundry day and not be physically thrown out of the ring of the civilized. I can also trip on a piece of garbage and fall down and not be helped, but, well, at least I won’t be laughed at. I enjoy the complete lack of judgment here. I even suspect that this total lack of judgment that my anonymity in Evangelista has caused is in turn causing me to be somewhat of a superwoman. Here I can exist on an eccentric diet of instant food, junk food, cereals, and lutong bahay and still stay standing after three days of non-stop writing-to-beat-a-deadline. Here I can also write a chapter a day in my apartment about Philippine politics in the late 70’s and still be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with one of my downstairs neighbors about the pros and cons of having laundromats do one’s laundry while we’re on our way to take out the trash. And here, I have learned how to mop my floors, although I haven’t done it lately, as my apartment is a mess and my mop seems to have been buried inextricably underneath all that mess.

Of course, I don’t do all these things in Naga City, where I used to live before I moved to Manila. And in Naga, it’s an entirely different story, and an entirely different me. There I have my son. There I do not do my own grocery shopping, and neither do I walk out of the house without at least my eyebrows properly penciled in. There laundry is done everyday by our very own laundress in a humongous heavy duty Whirlpool washing machine by the garage. There trash doesn’t just lie around in wait for people to trip. There my stomach also gains a totally new identity, always craving for real meals, and I won’t have to talk to any of my neighbors if I don’t feel up to it. Furthermore, hardly do I ever have to mop the floors. Of course, there I can’t write a chapter a day. And in that fact, perhaps, lies the point of reckoning. This is why my choice is to live alone in Evangelista.

When one has taken a particular profession to heart, it becomes not only a lifestyle, but a life. Everything else becomes secondary, mere fuel for that life. At that point in time when person and profession merge, everything else around them is inadvertedly and irreversibly configured to cater to the new life that it creates. Houses, apartments, streets, food, time, dreams, sleeping habits, thinking habits, even speech, all become slaves to a life that is limited to person and profession. The typewriter is a world. The writer’s apartment is a cosmos. And the street where the writer stays to write is the unfathomable beyond where everything is chaos, magic, and material. It is where I, who have become words on paper and on a computer screen, am as material as can be.


04 January 2006


There are some people in our lives that we have the habit of associating with beauty. Worldly aunts with perfect faces who live decadent social lives and who we don’t see around too often, magnificent teachers who awe us with their ability to combine operatic singing with the laws of higher math, a much-loved older friend from childhood who can make up fabulous stories of fairies and mountains and purple skies. With them we never have bad memories; our times together were always magical. And we have always made it a point to share only good stories with them, so we can cling to this ideal, magical idolatry that we have of these beautiful people and not drag them down to the realities of our own not-so-beautiful lives.

One of the people that I associate with beauty in my life in this way is Annabelle. She was my classmate for a year in high school at the Colegio de Sta. Isabel in Naga City. She was very simple, demure, and quiet. She was the Maria Clara of our batch. She had straight black hair that fell down her back in a shiny sheet, and not a hair was ever out of place. In college, at the Ateneo de Naga, a hush fell on the corridors whenever she walked past, looking fragile and ethereal. She always smelled of powdery perfume, and she hardly wore any makeup. Even the sound of her name evoked the image of flowers and ribbons.

I maintained a certain distance with her for the fourteen years that I’ve known her. We were friends, but we never got to the level of the nitty gritty. I felt she was too beautiful for anything and anyone to ever be nitty gritty with her. But we shared good memories. She was my only high school classmate that I invited to my wedding, and she is one of Chandler’s godmothers. When her turn came to get married, I was her only high school friend there.

She got married today. It was a beautiful wedding. Small, tasteful, graceful, elegant, and wonderfully planned, it was a wedding that only Annabelle can pull off. Just this afternoon she walked down the aisle of the Naga Cathedral, resplendent in a white satin gown created by Ariel Alvarez with rhinestone embellishments, and in a style that only she can pull off, tiny silvery-white bows running down her train. I was glad that nobody in the cathedral knew me, because I was actually bawling into my pashmina behind everybody else, with a pew all to myself. I was crying partly because she was even more beautiful than I remembered, and partly because at that very moment, I realized that I had misjudged her.

Fragile, ethereal, beautiful Annabelle of the flowers and the soft voice and the fragile hands and with whom I never shared the nitty gritties of my life is actually one of the strongest women in the world. She got married, after all! To make that decision indeed takes remarkable strength. She not only deemed it important that she walk down the aisle with the man she had loved for years, she had also bargained to bear with the physical burdens of becoming pregnant, and of childbirth, and of raising children. She will become fat for a while. She will be up at odd hours caring for a toddler with a cold, a preschooler who is afraid of monsters under the bed, or perhaps waiting up for a husband who had been held up at work. She will warm up meals for him very late at night even when she feels like just going to bed. She will worry about the plumbing and her eventual wrinkles, and that a window in the basement somehow does not shut right. She will buy socks and coloring books and vegetables and chili plasters. She will think deeply about which bicycles to buy for her children, and will worry that her husband might have forgotten to bring an umbrella to work on a very rainy day. She will keep house, or manage a household. She will build a family and make choices for them. She will worry about a teenaged daughter who is out on a date with her very first boyfriend. She will worry about her children as they learn how to drive. She will have gray hairs. She will think about whether to dye them. She will start wearing high heels less and flat shoes more. She will cry a great deal, too. She will cry at her children's graduations and at at their weddings, and cry at the birth of her grandchildren. She will cry when she suspects that her husband does not love her anymore, and she will cry when she realizes that he loves her more than he did on the day they were married. She will cry when he sings her a serenade at their fiftieth wedding anniversary. She will make sacrifices. She will be happy, with the kind of happiness that can only come out of sincere hard work and pure love.

And as I think about her now, I see that she has been strong all along, even before she got married. She had dealt with the death of her father, one or two broken hearts, friends who have been disloyal to her, and people who barely know her but who consider themselves experts at her private life. She had put herself through law school at the University of Nueva Caceres in Naga while working at the Naga City Prosecutor’s Office and caring for her aging mother, and she was strong enough to mention to me that she has seen the papers for my marriage annulment case and strong enough not to pry further. She was strong enough for a restrained friendship with me. She was strong enough to let go of disloyal friends. Not the stuff of legend, but I find remarkable beauty in that nevertheless. She was strong enough for love, and to make choices in favor of love. Beyond her physical beauty, her fragile perfection that seeps through her every spoken syllable, her every eye blink, lies the even grander beauty of a strong character and an unshakeable, grounded spirit.

This is what beauty had taught me today: That it is nothing like I thought, that it is beyond everything I thought.