(Close to Being) Out of the Woods

I finished reading Anne Carson’s Plainwater around the end of February but I have been constantly thinking of a passage from “The Anthropology of Water”:

“Lovers— correct me if I’m wrong— insist on bringing the two perspectives together, a sort of double exposure. To draw into the very inside of my heart the limit that was supposed to mark it on the outside, your strangeness. But keep it strange. Those three things.”

I was immediately reminded of the Lovers card in the tarot deck, and how I wrote it in shorthand like a venn diagram.

One of the common interpretations of the Lovers card is doubt. When I was learning how to interpret the images and symbolism of each tarot card, I often wondered why such a seemingly positive and reassuring card such as the Lovers would connote doubt. Thinking about it a little bit more, I also realize that the overlapping of two images or, in the case of venn diagrams, situations lead to a third image, or space. A third condition where ambiguity and uncertainty arises, but also common ground (how ever different the two overlapping things are), possibility and growth. What appears to be two separate things, one thing or another, are actually also both things at once. A limitation that is drawn on the ground between two people exists within them. What feelings and thoughts tremble within that limitation also exists in both bodies. And I imagine that for some, these conditions are frightening to contemplate and confront. Hence, doubt.

The diagram above is from “The Auditory-Visual Overlap” from Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: Phenomenology of Sound (1976; 2007). It shows the realms of the auditory and the visual, where –z– stand for purely vibratory and sonic things (the unseen, sound waves, ghosts) and –x– refers to things that are visual (objects, the natural world). –y– is the third condition where the seen (–x–) and unseen (–z–) meet and that denotes movement. So, when the unseen and seen are thrust into each others proximity, there is movement. Movement is going from one place to another; it is also growth, a cataclysm, a revolution. It is a force of change.

In Carson’s “The Anthropology of Water”, the voice (main character) goes on a road trip with a lover whom she refers to as The Emperor (there are plenty of references to Ancient China in this section of the book). He’s not really that great. He talks mostly about himself and his exes. He seems only concerned with sex. He says cruel things disguised as clever observations. She is aware of all this— why else would she speak of it?— but goes with him anyway. So, thrust into each other’s presence, they go on a road trip.

There is always something bubbling and boiling and trembling underneath the surface. The road trip ends with the voice keeping a set of maps her lover no longer needs. Or wants. Seemingly without explanation The Emperor flits in and out of the voice’s life and within the reader’s sight. The voice at some point— in Luz, Utah— says, “By the time I wake, anger is scorching through me… The light snaps at my heel like a farm dog.” Through the road trip, the voice is occasionally reminded of her father. It appears that love and resentment overlapped to create a third space where she understood. “I am wondering about the color green. Why it hurts like sound hurts inside a jar…” the voice says as they drive through Kansas where “there is the limitless green limit of the horizon” and of the changing landscape as The Emperor is talking about history, “… This is not what he is saying but it is what I know. I am the one who watches the way plants sweat at noon come at me, slap my mind across the room. That is who I am, those three things.”

Lately, I have been focusing on understanding things, situations, people, and myself. Why I write, for instance. It can’t always be for the clout or a way to brag, as if writing was content and I was only producing for an audience. I’ve always grappled with intentions. Mine and other people’s. I really didn’t understand much, and let things happen. Even though I knew what I liked and didn’t like, it was different from knowing what I wanted and who I was. Am I past this condition? I feel I am nearly out of the woods.

Keep moving, stay strange, be all three things and more.

A New Project

The past two weeks have been an intense period of tending to personal stuff. Dealing with bureaucracy just got even worse in an ongoing pandemic, and I definitely have had to deal with government offices a lot more in the past year and at the beginning of 2021. But I do find moments of beauty and respite, mostly in tending to plants and watching projects— ongoing and new— blossom. There still potential in chaotic limbo.

I’ve also started a podcast on possession movies. I love watching horror movies, and discussed the etymology (origins) of the word “possession” for my first episode. With its origins rooted in purely legal usage in Old French, and transformed into the supernatural usage in English as a “state of being under the influence of madness or a demon”, there’s definitely an angle of exploitation through the related word “dispossession”. As in, being dispossessed of one’s land or property. Definitely a loaded history that I connect to feudal relations, land grabbing, and colonization.

You can listen to my new little project THE LAST POSSESSION OF on anchor.fm or on Spotify.

Film and Writing: Voice, Intent

I recently watched a Taiwanese romantic drama, The Personals, directed by Kuo Fu Chen. The film is about a successful ophthalmologist Du Jia Zhen (played by Rene Liu) placing a personal ad on newspapers in her search for a husband. I thought it was a great movie that presented the character of a successful woman seeking marriage through what would be considered an unusual way. I was interested in the structure of the film, where each date is a short story of its own and tied together by Jia Zhen’s quest. In each meeting, we see different aspects of her personality, her intelligence and charm, as well as what scares her or makes her uncomfortable. The story appears to be an anthology with narrative overlaps.

When I undertake a big writing project, I watch films, look at art and pretty things, to feed my creative fire. In the last quarter of 2020, I undertook two major projects. During the rest in between projects, I watched Apichatpong Weersethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) and Chungking Express (1994). Mysterious Object at Noon is what I would consider a generous film in terms of how it inspired me to think and approach storytelling as a travelling narrative that transforms as its wanders from one ear to another. Chungking Express created a lasting portrayal of human emotions as opposed to fiction’s traditional definition as about being human action. It’s what I mean when I say describe anything as a vibe— I feel as I see and this is what constitutes the experience. I look to films to inspire me about writing because there are things you can do in film/visual narrative that would not translate and be as successful in written narrative. For instance, in The Personals, on Jia Zhen’s first date, the man talks about his work at a computer factory and the scene cut from a dining room to the factory— what writing style could achieve that? (It reminds me of the editing style of Strangebrew, a situational comedy reality/travelogue from the Philippines.) But I think that this speaks more about the additional work I have to do mastering fiction writing. I’m also pretty sure my film professors in college and graduate school have a very simple way of verbalizing everything I have said so far, and noting that this is not too uncommon among writers and artists. But these ruminations on drawing inspiration from film for my writing are similar to how a baby one day realize that they have legs and must walk with it.

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I also don’t think much about the other aspects of my process, and this blog for the most part is for me to draw attention to what other things inform my work, to think about them as I go along, and to share them with an audience. It is to question what intentions I begin with in writing and to be mindful of them. In the past years, I’ve been working on developing a neutral inner voice. With some help, I realized that wanting to have a supportive inner voice leans towards the tendency to have a voice that will attack me because of self-judgment. Constantly, I want to speak and write with sincere and generous intentions. When I speak in writing to my reader what are my intentions, what would I like to impart? In the same vein, when I speak to myself, what is my intention for myself?

Protective Measures

1.

Since the beginning of 2021, I’ve been restlessly moving and re-arranging the plants by the window. Last week, I noticed that some of the plants, especially the ones I placed in plastic pots, were teeming with fungus gnats. Chili spray seemed to do the work, as well as placing bowls of water with a dash of apple cider vinegar by the affected plants. I keep constant watch, wanting to ensure that the pothos will to thrive, the purple oxalis was issuing more growths each day, and the succulents appear to be in steady sleep. The bigger plants—a monstera, peace lily, and zz—were unaffected.

I grew up in a house filled and surrounded by plants. In front of my childhood home was an empty lot. Empty because it was the steep slope of a small hill, on top of which was an abandoned club house. On the lot, we planted vegetables. At the abandoned club house, me and my friends played. But on Sundays, a church group would hold sermons there and the pastor would warn his flock of the decadent Catholics that lived on the street below. Decadent because, my father explained, some of us had three cars. Our parents, in turn, warned us about suspect figures, among them a man who would show his genitals to anyone who happened to look up at random hours of the day. Once, someone threw down a bottle of Tanduay rum perhaps to assert dominance. Eventually, nine papaya trees grew on the empty lot, among eggplants, okras, and malunggay. Shortly after, my mother developed terrible rashes. At its worst, the rashes had fluid inside them. My big sister spent nights picking on the tiny boils with a sterilized needle. My mother claimed she felt no pain. The shaman my parents consulted blamed the tikbalang living among the papaya trees. But after a trip to the dermatologist we learned that my mother was allergic to lamb— which she had during a work trip to Australia— and she was given effective ointments.

2.

I share a ground floor apartment with my partner and a senior cat. When we buy roast chicken, we eat the skin, the thighs, drumsticks, and wings; the cat eats the breasts in chicken broth I would make from the left-over bones. The weather and the climate have been especially punishing, we stretch food for as long as we can.

3.

It seems each month is a tumultuous beginning. Let me end my days in a small place I can constantly re-order.

4.

Currently reading Jacques Ranciere’s The Edges of Fiction, where in the introduction he writes that fiction is a result of a surfeit of rationality, which he notes is an idea postulated by Aristotle. In a series of tweets, writers give writing advice, one of them being that if a reader is able to guess a foreshadowing through a series of well placed hints in the narrative, it means that the writer has done their job. Indie publisher Inside the Castle defines writing in general as the re-ordering of a preexisting order, to offer the reader novel ways of thinking and looking. What other creature has a mind that whose intelligence is determined because of its openness towards novelty? The octopus.

5.

Days in 2020 were exercises in turning and returning. Memories and thoughts would be visited in loops and dips in emotion. In my mind, I see myself tearing pages off my journals to create a nest, leaning towards tending and protection.

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Green

Having finished two major projects in the last quarter of 2020, I began planning for a new one at the beginning of this year. There is a story. There are stories.

The past six years I’ve spent meandering, half-focused, in figuring out what I wanted to do with my writing—knowing that I was serious about it, though whether I could make a living off of it was another question I now think of close to answering—- and preparing to plunge without fear of drowning.

I have to laugh at myself, because I sound so self-serious talking about myself as a writer. “Preparing to plunge without fear of drowning” was mostly reading books mentioned by friends who studied (and are now teaching) Comparative Literature, copying other writers and artists styles (and feeling terrible upon knowing that it didn’t suit me), and wandering around my city until 3 am. It was plenty of anxiety before finding confidence; poor choices before making excellent ones.

These days I feel more comfortable with myself. In turn, I feel more comfortable with my voice.

I want to set the story, which is likely to become a book, in Manila and Quezon City; perhaps an element of Bangkok, Baguio City, Dumaguete… So, in researching and reminding myself more vividly of this combination of settings, I began to look at old pictures I took of my cities and felt homesick. I cried a little then told M about it when he came home from work.

He thought about it for a while, then asked me if it would help if he gave me prompts for photographs around our neighborhood. “Just one word, kind of like improv. It’s up to you what to make of it.” One of them was Green.

I think of taking pictures as a way for me to develop an attachment for a subject, often a place or an object. I take pictures of strangers but rarely. The ones I have were still from the Philippines.

In graduate school, I don’t recall photographs and photography being referred as an act of developing affection. It was mostly concepts which I consider “hard” in texture like violence (as in, ‘shooting a subject’ or ‘shooting a photograph’; ‘taking’; ‘capturing’; there may have been an instance when somebody relates the camera to a gun), conflict (Roland Barthes’s studium and punctum; sometimes literally, like the Tiananmen Masssacre, war in West Asia, surveillance), and memory in the historical sense. Even what seemed personal was anchored in a grandiose narrative.

I want to look at the third space between the Personal and Historical, Individual and Collective. A third space that rises when one looks without projecting an ego. I’m able to do that by making a set of images I selected by chance and choice. I walk around until I find something suitable to the prompt given to me.

It’s incredible. M’s idea worked and I feel so much better.

A good friend told me that it is all about intention. It’s important to know what it is that I want to put out. Green to me is forthcoming and patience, a good omen as well as well wishes, a soothing gesture of love.

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The Seventh Day of the Seventh Month

The balete tree, from the genus Ficus from the Philippines.

Tending

My sister had one planted in a pot. It was for a school project in Home Economics. She planted a balete tree and it must stay alive for a good amount of time. The tree lived way past her first year in high-school, though we may have had that tree for longer. My mother replanted it in a huge pot so it had more room to grow. She put it against the red wall of the townhouse we rented and there it spread its orange-red roots. At night, I imagined in blazed like a fire with small electric thunder issuing from its oldest aerial roots. Electricity that hovered in the air, like the tiniest debris floating in the aftermath of a house fire. Electricity that transmuted into words in the air. I caught some and pretended I could make beautiful phrases. It had been the balete all along.

Its leaves look like tear-shaped emeralds. I keep an emerald ring my mother gave me, but it only reminds that I am a burden. Even overseas, where I have made a space for myself and tend to my needs, it is hard to not feel like a burden. Everyday tending to wounds that do not show.

Teeth

At noon I watched steam rise from a kettle. Writing a book to lead me back to myself. I have a nickname for my child-self: Teapot. And I think about what Teapot liked, what she thought, and how she got out of any situation by talking through. Until she shrank and receded into herself.

I used to keep baby teeth in a box. From time to time, I would open it and feel the ridges at the root of a tooth. It felt as if I could know a deep, forgotten secret by simply feeling those roots.

I want to be incredibly generous. And there are two ways for me to achieve a timeless, infinite kind of generosity: to think only of myself and think of things greater than myself, that shaped this consciousness. When I think of what is greater, I return to the nuanced sea and the sky under which rests home.

“Artists and writers who credit their native traditions for the accomplishments take pride in the fact that they have stamped their identity onto the world by allowing their native roots to diffuse themselves into that world. To be internationally recognized is to be deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of one’s own nation. To be a functional global citizen, one must be firmly rooted in one’s own soil. Our balete is a venerable tree with a broad trunk, a luxuriant crown, and innumerable roots sunk deep into Philippine soil. But its roots are also aerial roots, and we have no need to sever them in order to fly, to soar around the world seven times through our artistic creations.”

“The Music of Pestle-on-Mortar” from Ang Bayan sa Labas ng Maynila/ The Nation Outside Manila by Rosario Cruz Lucero

Terror and Glamour

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Image by Arthur Rachbauer from Unsplash

Today, I thought of water and the lapping of waves against the shore. Tides that push and pull seaweed that cling to a wall of glittering rocks. Being in the water, in the sea, I remember how it is to be presided over by great currents and tiny ones. Little whirlpools that form between my fingers as I sweep my arms against a bigger tide; my entire body rocking with a current I am all to aware can take me in a swoop. Swimming is like surrendering to the shimmering stillness of relief and sleep; where there is also the peril of drowning.

What I have most days are impressions of what is happening in the world. This week, I have been following news about the death of George Floyd, a man from Minnesota who had suffocated and died under the knee of a police officer. His last words were, “Please. Please. I can’t breathe. Please. I can’t move”. The morning I learned of the news, it seemed to echo news of police brutality from my own country—Kian delos Santos, a seventeen year old boy shot execution style by police in a dark alley in Caloocan City, Metro Manila in 2017, whose last words were “Please, sir don’t” and begged to be let go because he had a test tomorrow; Winston Ragos, a military man who had PTSD, killed at a checkpoint by police officers in Quezon City. I don’t know if anybody remembers or had noted what his last words were. There are so many more names that come up in my timeline, and names that won’t even reach me. In the past week, the New York Times had also released a front page of all the names of those who died of COVID-19. All that were names were once people. I zoomed in on the NYT front page and read a few descriptions attached to the names. I found one Mr. Robert Barghaan, 88, who “could fix almost anything”.

These last words, and brief obituaries are utterances that are also like prayers, directed to something past perceiving. In a post shared on my Facebook timeline is a laborer who had been displaced by the poorly implemented lockdown, he shared his story and ended it by telling that he looked up to the sky and implored “Diyos ko, baguhin niyo po sana ang tadhana ko”, “My God, please change my fate”. I hope for those words to rise like a tall wave and crash to the shore, sweeping through boulevards and streets, then dragging back into the dark water every familiar and pleasurable thing. I hope that at a point when suffering and injustice is exposed, normal would become meaningless and undesirable. Normal times made for widespread abuse, it is exhausting; personally, I never wanted to be normal. If it is weird to hope for progressive societies, then there is nothing more desirable than being weird and having unmarketable ideas and thoughts. For now, these utterances like prayers approach and recede like a tide, creating a rhythm to the days that drag on.

Something that should have been obvious to me but wasn’t was the origin of the word ‘glamour’ (or, ‘glamor’), which came to English from Scots, which is English as spoken in Scotland. Around the 18th century, the word grammar was altered and became ‘glammer’ or glamour, which meant ‘to cast a spell’. In studying the Classics, written works in Greek and Latin, grammar meant both the study of language and literature; in medieval Latin, grammar or grammatica was associated with scholarship related to magic and the occult, such as astrology and alchemy.

I think about the language and cadence of final words and obituaries. The utterances that are like prayers are also spells.

In terror is glamour.

 

A Sparkling Core

 Stars at the galactic core also known as the Milky Way Bulge. This is what the Hubble Space Telescope saw on my birthday in 2012.



I try to journal every day. In conversation and in writing, I do better when given a question or prompt. So, this morning, I asked myself a question: What does coping look like for you? 

One of the contexts for this prompt is an article I read about the real-life Lord of the Flies: In 1966, eight adolescent boys from Tonga took a boat to get away, encountered a pacific storm, and became stranded on the island of ‘Ata in the Pacific Ocean. ‘Ata is a giant rock jutting out of the ocean and uninhabited because its residents were taken by a slave ship. It proved untenable for the boys until they found the ancient crater of a volcano that had flourishing flora and fauna, including chickens that have been breeding for over a hundred years. They took care of each other and survived for a year and three months until a fisherman from Australia found them. Rutger Bregman from The Guardian writes, “While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.” 

Another is the image of the six of swords from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. I consider using tarot cards psychological exercises aided by interpretation. And I interpret images (and sounds) for a living now. From it, I was reminded of the statement “We are under the same storm”, instead of being on the same boat in light of the coronavirus crisis. People’s ways of coping are affected by their resources and mobility. So, we are all navigating one storm in different boats. Some have great ships, most have small boats. 

A third is the story of American activist and author Julia Butterfly Hill, who protested the clear-cut logging of redwood trees. She “tree-sat” a tree she called Luna for 738 days. In Taoist scholar and professor Dr. Benjamin Tong’s “The Taoist and the Activist” from a show called Lunch with Bokara, Hill says: “So for me, activism is about a spiritual practice as a way of life. And I realized I didn’t climb the tree because I was angry at the corporations and the government; I climbed the tree because when I fell in love with the redwoods, I fell in love with the world. So it is my feeling of ‘connection’ that drives me, instead of my anger and feelings of being disconnected.” 

Activism is also doing everything we can to not let out home knocked down and our boats destroyed by a storm; tend to the hearth fire so it never burns out and we can always have light, warmth, and nourishment. I consider activism as a means of coping—keeping that hope and feeding it with action—and preservation. There are people, in our time—ordinary health workers, laborers, farmers, and kind ones—who will do everything in their power to not let it all fall apart. 

The same can be done on a personal level with the body. To answer my own question: It begins with my body and the parts that need tending. And tendering. I can’t sleep until I’ve let my grief be carried away by the tide. Obviously an unscientific perception, but I’ve always believed that certain pains and negative feelings hide or embed themselves in specific parts of my body. The tense muscle on my upper right back is where the pressure to succeed resides. When I lie down, it twitches and sends a sharp current of pain down to my hips. To rest is to expose myself to hidden pain. Hidden because I don’t feel it during the day and forget about it until it is time to sleep. In my throat are thoughts that I would rather swallow and stomach than express. The back of my jaw hurts, mostly because of teeth that needs to be pulled out, but also because this is where I carry my worry and rage.

It’s morbidly astonishing how much dirt can get in my skull. My nose is itchy, my ears full of dust gathering like ambergris that can only be extracted by a tiny spoon-like tool, and I can feel phlegm sloshing at the back of my throat for two out of four seasons. Sometimes, the phlegm can feel like a slug sliding through the crevices of my skull; there is excruciating pain when it gets stuck, especially when I am flying. I can’t even conceive of the top of my body as a “head” because all I see and feel is a screaming, flaming skull. The dirt and filth in my skull bear stories of different adventures, big and small. To very bottom, the soles of my feet are calloused and warped from carrying this entire existence.

So, coping for me is to be able to think and write about all kinds of feelings and sensations. Most of all, the difficult ones I would rather avoid because it’s too much to work on. It is such a task to curb my anger, for instance. I try to find a way to transmute all the great and small things that give me pain and grief into a condition close to comfort and joy. Part of my small boat is a tiny lantern. I also tend to that tiny flame as I do try to be excellent to myself. The closer I am to my sparkling core, the better connected I become to the people around me and to my surroundings. At present, this is all that is asked of anyone: be gentle and thoughtful.

Haunts and Hauntings

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Overcome by the need to move around, I have decided to visit a graveyard tomorrow afternoon. Maybe I will remember to write about it, as I had intended to write about a show I saw some time last summer. It was curated by a friend, I told her I love it and meant it. The show was installed in a large exhibition space and people came by the busloads. These days buses and subways run empty. Back home, I’ve seen photos of empty streets. The only signs of life are the cacophony of voices on the internet.

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I’ve always been a walker. The past March I put my legs to the test and tried ice skating for fun. I fell so many times on my back it triggered a traumatic memory. An old friend who had accompanied me to the ice asked me why. Why? I couldn’t explain because I didn’t want to. It was the pain. An unseen, internal pain that found its manifestation in physical pain many years after. The morning after that experience, I told myself as I made myself pretty: “How long has it been when you felt such fear you felt as if you were trapped in a block of ice?” Denial was when I, as a kid, would place my hands in the refrigerator freezer thick with ice, hold it for as long as I could, and told myself it was all for fun.

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So it might make sense to think I would walk into places where I never felt cold or lonely. I found this praying mantis among my mother’s bougainvillea shrubs a few days before I was to depart. It seems to be a juvenile Philippine mantis or Hierodula parviceps. A quick Google search of the spiritual meaning of praying mantises told me that they symbolize good fortune, clarity, stillness, and focus. I told my mom and she was pleased; you can never get enough of those good things. Her home had a particular vibe, a way of making me feel the space that I’ve never found elsewhere. Each place has its energy, its vibe, that can’t be replicated. It’s her space. She keeps many plants, her room faces a patch of greenery in an otherwise bustling and dusty city, small animals visit her from time to time. Her latest visitor was a young cicada.

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M. says that every great story shares a similar core—somebody wants to go home. A great part of my life has been spent finding ways to get away from home. Thinking that I’m just taking after my father, who was a seafarer, is a nice little piece of kibble I throw my ego once in a while. Home is the capacity to hold and let go of things at the right time.