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 May 2007

Agua de Mayo

This must be the most books I have bought in a month. Not included in the photo are Writer's Block by Jason Rekulak, Beyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud, and The Technique of the Love Affair by Doris Langley Moore and Norrie Epstein, which have not arrived yet from Amazon when I took the photo. Also not in the photo is Warrior: An Autobiography by Ariel Sharon, which I have given to the man in my life as a gift.

About half of the books in the pile were bought from two local Book Sale stores in Naga. When I arrived for my three-week break, I saw that I have brought with me only three books, and so I panicked and drove over to the mall and bought a total of fifteen books, one of them a gem of a find, Here at the New Yorker by Brendan Gill.

I loved it! It provided a rare glimpse of James Thurber, Truman Capote, John O'Hara, Dorothy Parker, and the rest of New York literatti. I was hooked at the first sentence, which is: "Happy writers have histories shorter even than happy families." But it's not a sad and disenchanting memoir at all! It's funny, gossip-y, cosmopolitan, and acerbic, and shows never-before published pages of hilarious memos and query sheets, revealing life at The New Yorker that was.

Brendan Gill joined the magazine in 1939 when he was in his early twenties, and there had a long and fun-filled career, able to afford to comment on the lifestyles of the "poorer" writers and artists of the magazine because he himself had a rich and successful father who catered to his every whim. But hardly ditsy, Brendan Gill also gives some brilliant passages, and one of my favorites is this: "If the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined past is not worth possessing; it bears fruit only by being held continuously up to the light, and is as changeable and as full of surprises, pleasant and unpleasant, as the future."

The memoir was published in 1975, and the copy I have is a paperback with brittle covers that had already crumbled at the corners. And to think I would not have found this book if I didn't forget to bring enough books with me from my shelves Manila! Ah, the wonderful things we find by accident, when we least expect to be hit by something beautiful.

I also found two books that were in my Amazon shopping cart, West With The Night by Beryl Markham and Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. The Hosseini book cost 200 pesos ($4, at 49 pesos to $1) and the Markham biography cost 55 pesos ($1.12). Look at how much they cost when bought new from Amazon, excluding shipping.

It almost made me swear off Amazon -- but not quite. Right after I got home from the fifteen-book shopping spree at the book sales, I logged on to Amazon, deleted these two books from my shopping cart, and bought the eleven books left, including Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, which is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner for General Non-Fiction, and which I need for work, and The Madwoman In The Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, a book I have always wanted to read ever since Paz Verdades Santos told me that she observed my writing to be exhibiting symptoms of that sensibility. I also bought a new copy of Strunk and White: The Elements of Style to replace my ancient, well-worn copy. I am looking forward to reading them all, and have even finished reading five of them during my wonderful three-week break.

I enjoyed my May. It rained books in my life this month. The real rains of the wet season have also begun, and Agua de Mayo, the first heavy rain of May, happened on May 22. I stood in my bedroom in Bicol at 6:43 a.m. looking out of the large bay window into the rain, the sound of it deafening, uplifting, reassuring. Memories, good and bad, came crashing down on me but strangely enough, I felt happy as ever, strong as ever. Suddenly the rain has become beautiful to me, and I am more beautiful because of new learning and new strength. The summer has ended. May has ended. Let the rains come.

22 May 2007

Two-year baggage

Since I bought my car over two years ago, it has become a repository for all sorts of junk. There is a giant plastic waterproof canister in the trunk which used to hold all my school books and papers during the time that I was enrolled full time at the University of the Philippines which required me to be there almost every day for classes, library work, and other related errands. When my academic load at the UP eased up, the canister began to be filled with work-related books and files, and when my Boss had the bright idea to include me in some of the troops' activities at the PNP-Special Action Force, into the canister went clothes, shoes, jackets, and toiletries, making me ready for an instant overnight stay at either of the two SAF camps.

Now all of these activities had petered out, but the accumulated junk kept attracting more and more junk to itself, like some filthy magnet slowly growing in size, forming a giant monster that will one day eat me up. So early one morning, ready to go back to work after a three-week rest, I hauled the plastic canister from the trunk of my car and sorted through the two-year excess baggage.

I found a pair of jeans, bulging file folders from a project I had five years ago, a dusty crocheted throw, grimy generic compact discs with data written onto them which I am understandably not interested to know, a free desk calendar from Blessings of the UP Shopping Center from 2005, Mongol pencils of various length, a blue sock, a petrified sugared donut inside a small plastic bag, an assortment of empty and half-empty plastic water bottles, deformed plastic ring binders, strofoam cups, several old books I didn't particularly like, and more odds and ends, mostly just trash. The entire pile must have weighed over 20 lbs.

I did not stop there. I asked a manservant to clean out the inside of my car and he found a pair of old pink rubber slippers, small unopened bags of Choc-Nut which must have fallen under the seats and thus have been given up for lost, still more pencils and water bottles and an assortment of scratch paper, gas receips, toll receipts, flyers, brochures, a black sock, an unidentified electronic charger, and dead cockroaches in various stages of decomposing, all of which were possibly killed by eating some kind of poisonous mold that was growing on the rotting bits and pieces of food the manservant also found in the car: french fries, a last bite of cheeseburger, a small piece of what looked like ham. Also found were several hairclips, a hairnet which I do not remember ever owning, a small fabric pouch which I also remember not owning, a pair of neon green scissors with one handle broken, a pirated dvd of what looked like "Click" but which was labeled "The Amazing Universal Remote Control," and a plastic comb, all of which I particularly remember not owning. It could be that my car, at some point in time, had become a repository of other people's junk as well, which just convinced me even more that accumulated junk attacts still more junk, and not only the junk belonging to me. My car has become the black hole for the discards of the country. It was unbelievable. All together, the junk found in my car could easily fill up to two sacks worth of trash.

And to think that I have been carrying them all around inside my car for two years! No wonder I felt weighed down. No wonder I had to take a three-week break from the rest of the world. I was carrying around rotting things, old things, things I did not need, things I should have thrown away a long time ago.

I sorted through all that junk, and with glee I threw away the trash, threw away the filthy plastic canister, threw away all that was weighing me down. Out went the old, the dirty, the un-needed, the ones that brought back bad memories, practically everything I found. How long do we have to hold on to things that we have outgrown? How many things do we still hold on to that we are better off living without? How long until we decide to start forgetting? How to draw the line between good-natured sentimentality and a refusal to let go? Until when should we put off cleaning up?

I threw everything away. I decided that I don't want to look back because I don't have to look back. Everything -- the weddings I have attended, the new friends I have made, the kilometers I have driven, the money I have spent, the phone numbers I have been given, the water I have drunk, the garments that I have worn, and all the rest -- will always be present in me. I have the memories; I don't need the objects. I already hold the past two years deeply ingrained in my heart. And in there, nothing is dirty, nothing is old, nothing is lost.

Due for a debauchery

I got reviewed over at World Blog Council, and it was fun! The members of the august council have "thoroughly approved" my blog. I had not realized I was being too bookish, though. But then again, maybe I just love being that way so much that it has become irrelevant to me whether I am bookish or not.

Indeed, I have been reading a lot, and reading mostly only the titles from daunting book lists such as the Best Novels of All Time, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning works, and the works of the Nobel Prize Laureates for Literature. But really, as Robertson Davies said in his 1991 lecture entitled "Writing and Reading," reading only the best can give you mental dyspepsia. So in honor of the fabulous people over at the World Blog Council, I will perform the suggested debauchery, not with marines, but with bad books.

Yes, I will read three bad books. Any suggestions?

Six weird things about me

I've been tagged by Gibbs Cadiz! For the life of me I cannot think of anything weird about myself, so I'll just list down the things that some people say they find mildly strange about me.

But first, the rules: Each player of this game starts with 6 weird things about him- or herself. People who get tagged need to write a blog of their own as well as state the rule clearly. In the end, you need to tag 6 people as well and list their names. Don’t forget to let them know they've been tagged!

1. Just like Gibbs, I can't whistle. When I was a child I used to pretend I could, but I never fooled anyone.

2. My hair is very, very long.

3. I cannot buy just one book each time. Buying just one book at a time makes me feel so deprived.

4. My favorite fountain pen ink is called Noodler's Zhivago.

5. I call my car "Spooky."

6. I cannot understand poetry.

There! I'm tagging Lizza, Ginny, Loi, Migs, Janet, and Sonny.

14 May 2007

Noon in the garden of good and evil

When I was a little girl my mother once worked in our garden under heavy rains, and used her bare hands to sculpt soil into mounds and hills and steps of different shapes and sizes. She said she needed to work with the heavy rains because the water makes the soil easier to shape. I watched her from the window, watched her on the far side of the garden, her rain-sodden clothes clinging to her back, the rest of her barely discernible through the curtain of rain.

Over the next couple of days she would keep working in the garden, reshaping the grounds, planting flower beds, ferns, vines, and even small trees. Every afternoon, when it starts to get dark, she would finally go into the house, the maid running to her with towels and a bathrobe, and she would go straight to the bathroom for a hot shower, but not before I catch a glimpse of her blackened nails and muddy pants.

After a couple more days of heavy rains, my mother stopped working on the garden and declared it finished. The very next day, as if under command, the sun came out to harden the new shapes, seal them into their new decorative incarnations, and make the lawn less soggy for us to run around in. Because it was the season for Agua de Mayo, heavy rains came interspersed with fiercely sunny days, but for the rest of the season, after the garden was done, my mother stayed in with us when it rained.

We lived in that small house with the big garden until I was 13. Now my mother lives in a far bigger house with a slightly smaller garden. She does not shape the grounds with her bare hands under heavy rains anymore. She now has gardeners to shape her garden into the mounds and hills and steps that she likes, and she doesn't go out of the house when it's raining. There is a wall of bougainvilleas in the far wall, and pots of papyrus and ficus and bottlebrush and various other plants. She holds her parties in the garden. She has the gardeners put in tiny white lights all around, and her friends come over to eat cake and talk about gardens.

Just recently she asked me what kind of garden I would like to have. I told her I wanted a garden that was overgrown, unplanned, unkempt, and without a single flower. Everything should be just leaves and branches, and there would be secret places to hide, and insects and snakes. She chuckled at that.

We were not always this cool with each other. There was a time when quarrels were the order of the day, and we would argue about everything under the sun, such as my clothes, my hair, her habit of always telling me what to do, her forcing me to go to Sunday mass, my telebabad with friends. Everyday was judgement day. We were your normal mother-and-daughter -- dysfunctional, emotional, hormonal, eternally irate with each other, a couple of crazies. I left home in a huff; she waved me away, telling me to take whatever I needed and just go. I never noticed when all of that ended. Just like I barely noticed when she had stopped shaping her garden with her own hands under heavy rains, I also barely noticed when she started having gray hairs and started the habit of putting her legs up on a second chair each time she watched the late night news.

I left home, she waved me away. Now I know it was just a phase, which, as all phases in women's lives go, have barely discernible boundaries. You never can put a finger at the point of change. You just feel a different drift in the air, hear a different sound, notice that you have lesser and lesser pimples, perhaps, or that you have begun to crave more fruits, and then, you see that you yourself are not the same person you once were. You become pregnant, you become a mother and then realize it only a little later, as if all the medication has made your sensibilities lag a little, and then you catch up. And then you have a teenager, and then you become a grandmother yourself, lagging sometimes, and then catching up, huffing and puffing at the effort, developing arthritis in the process, getting gray hairs in the process, getting your heart broken and then healed again and then broken and then healed again in the process, turning your heart into some kind of patchwork, tender in some places and tough in some places. Love makes you feel young, but it also makes you grow old. A woman is never just one thing.

I always come back to this house, when I am sick, when I am lonely, or when I am dealing with something difficult. And she always looks glad when I drive over, asking me what food I want the cook to prepare. Some afternoons I walk in her garden, thinking that flowers are not so bad to have after all. And in my mother's garden now, it is always bright and sunny noon, even when it's night, even when it rains.

Happy Mother's Day, Mama Eden.

09 May 2007

Books, reading, writing, blogging

This is what the first 58 books in my Library Thing shelf looks like.

It doesn't reflect my entire library, of course. I definitely have more than that. These first 58 were just the ones nearest to me when I began cataloguing my books, and I've never had the opportunity to proceed.

There should have been more than 58 in this first slew of cataloguing. The other books I tried to catalogue didn't match the book cover images that showed up online, so I didn't add them yet. Being the exact person that I am, I wanted the book covers in the catalogue to match my actual book covers. Also, I am a little bothered by the brown generic book cover images. I'm planning to remove them from my catalogue, and just keep trying to add and add and add the books I have, until the online cover images match my own covers. This means that my catalogue will never be really finished, but well, a library is always an ongoing project, so there.

As you can see, I have a thing for books. I not only need to read them because I am a writer, I read them also because I have been brought up on them as a child, creating a habit that would last my whole life. Being a sickly asthmatic underweight young girl in the farm, I didn't do much running around in the paddies and didn't do much hopping about in the mud with the carabaos. I stayed home after school to read. On weekends I was allowed to linger in bed in the mornings and go to sleep late, and I used these times to read, in bed, on the stairs, on the floor, on the couch, beside windows, in the terrace. During summers, I stayed on the swing to read, or up the branches of a low and stout mango tree, where I'd stay for hours until it started to get dark. Reading for me was never a form of punishment or chore, as it was for other children my age. Reading has always been a form of indulgence, a decadence, even, a langorous stretching of time and the body and the imagination, to accommodate the reading of a book, while everyone else moved about hurriedly with the rest of the pragmatic world.

I've always enjoyed reading long, lingering, epic works, just as much as I enjoyed shorter -- and super-short -- works that nevertheless stunned me with their impact, but it is the long works that really get me going. As a fictionist, I feel most at one with myself when writing long works. I have written stories that reach forty pages, which is fifteen pages longer than what is usually published. I have written very short stories as well, but I have more long work, and it's for my longer works that I am remembered. At workshops, almost no one ever tells me to cut a work short. I am most often advised to lengthen a work, add more plot twists, explore more of the character, because the story I have come up with so far is still throbbing with something that begs to be expanded, and that takes time to write as well as read. Perhaps I tend to choose those kind of subjects. Or not. I have not really thought about that yet.

Toni Morrison, as often quoted by Butch Dalisay, once said of a book of hers that she wrote it because she wanted to read it. I've always thought that that was one of the most sensible reasons to write a book, not to mention the most obvious. No writer in history has ever written a book that she hated. If she hated it so much, there's no point in having written it. So in a sense, all writers write for themselves, and then publish for their readers. I as a reader am thus at the mercy of the writers' tastes and judgement, but as I believe no Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature ever has bad taste in literature, it feels more like a privilege than a hindrance.

I myself write in ways and manners that I like best: taking my time, relishing the words, sinking, as it were, into soft cushions, ensconscing myself into a tapestry of words where time can go on and on and on, not staying still at all, while I am the one who stays still. There I take my time, take time into my hands, and render it irrelevant, to weave together a story worthy of the reader's time, so they can stand still long enough to enjoy my story while the rest of the world rushes past. I suppose that is just my sensibility. Just as I need time to take to any new place, any new life, any new thing I am reading, so I give my own readers the chance to settle in, cajoling them, inviting them to sink into the comfort of the long story that I have to tell, believing that they will gain pleasure while reading it, and that at the end of it, they will feel enriched, different somehow, more sensitive, more attuned to the intricacies and nuances of the human heart.

Even as a blogger, I am still that kind of writer. I have very few short entries, and I actually cringe at the idea of embedding something other than words into the page. (The most generous concession I can give is to photographs, and only recently, that.) Sometimes I wonder about my readers, but then again I'm sure they do not have short attention spans themselves, so it's all a pretty comfortable match. Just like my Library Thing cataloguing project, my reading life, and my own career in writing, this blog will take its own sweet time, will linger and meander and explore, partly in defiance of the quick-and-easy concept behind blogging itself, partly as a tribute to the langorousnes with which I view all written works, and partly as a mirror of who I am.

So come, settle, and take your time. Let me tell you stories.


06 May 2007

In my room

I finally did it. I told my boss one evening that I am simply exhausted with the book I have been working on for over a year, the history of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force, and the book itself has become so dear to me that I have been giving up more and more things for it. The book is the first thing I think of when I wake up, when it should be to try to recall the dream I've had the night before. My working files in my PowerBook is the first thing I run to at the start of the day, when it should be my journal, as all aspiring writers should do. In the middle of the night I wake up to double check the new citations, and all throughout the day I'm obsessed with getting the details right, the connections right, the conclusions right. Even when I talk to the SAF boys and officers, it's always about the book, and I have gotten out of touch with them as friends. I live and breathe the book, and it's not even in my genre.

I admit, if it were a novel or a collection of short fiction I was writing, I'd be basking in this obsession, and would be only too happy to make the current work my heart and my soul. But it's not a work of fiction, and although I have grown to love the boys that I am writing about, and have grown to appreciate their story even more, this book is nevertheless not me. It will never be me, and the sense of desperate exhaustion I have been feeling lately is because I have been wanting this book to be me, wanting myself to become this book, wanting to change myself into something I'm not so I could write this book the way I want it to be: male, strongly-worded, the be-all and and-all of everything that is the SAF.

Of course no book could ever be the be-all and end-all of anything. And though I could change my point of view and my general style and my working habits and even my lifestyle to fit the masculinity of this book, I could never change my core.

I find a quaint sort of irony here. The SAF, a very masculine unit, an elite force of the PNP, which itself came from the Philippine Constabulary with over a hundred years worth of history of battle behind it, has me for a writer. I, a woman, of the old traditional family from the province, of the fairly sheltered life, I who have just gotten my full independence four years ago, have been entrusted with this story. It has thus become, for me, a state of constant negotiation. For the first ten chapters, working on the book was so liberating because it was so new and it was like nothing I've ever written before. It was easy to negotiate then, until I fell deeper into the story, and somehow, in a way, lost myself.

Thus I am taking a break, taking a step back. And when I return, hopefully I'll be my old self again, a woman writer who sees history against its grain, who asks different questions and can write this book somewhere between the realm of history and the realm of dreams: its facts iron-clad, as male as the SAF is male, but its narrative simply moving and beautiful and unforgettable, no more woman than I am, but no less woman than I am. Eventually.

In the meantime I stay here now, in my old soltera's bedroom in my mother's house, no work files with me, no schedule to have to follow, no quota of words to write per day, no need to meet anyone for an appointment. I can read anything I want, I can watch anything I want, sleep for as long as I want. The boss was very understanding, never even asking when I will be back. The man in my life is also very supportive. He sends me a couple of text messages everyday, gentle and loving messages carefully worded so as not to disrupt my solitude. My son just checks on me every morning and then goes on with his merry games in his own room with the rest of the household, leaving me alone to do whatever I want. It's quite refreshing, like waking up in sunshine amid the familiar sights and smells of a room that I have lived in for all my life, pre-SAF, pre-boyfriends, pre-motherhood, pre-University of the Philippines, pre-independence, and here I find myself again, undisturbed and untouched, as if just waking into life.