Walking into 2023

A few days ago, my mother sent me an old picture of K.B. standing outside my bedroom door, waiting for me to come out. At the time, I responded with the standard heart emoji, a symbol I gave out to let people know I still think and care about them without having to say anything. As a writer, I find myself constantly feeling as if I have so little to say, or that whatever I do want to say doesn’t matter. Moments and memories flow and wash over me in short but constant waves. I can spend a few more paragraphs explaining how growing up I learned to detach from my true feelings and emotions as a survival mechanism but, well, that doesn’t really matter anymore either. I am about to bare myself, besides.

I haven’t been able to blog as much as I would have wanted to in 2022. The last entry on this website was an obituary/memorial for my old cat Kitty Boy. He passed away earlier this year. My sister didn’t specify how and where—he was about seven or eight years old when he passed, far too young for a healthy house cat.

This morning, as M. eased into bed from working night shift and I was getting ready for a few last minute errands before New Years Eve celebrations kick off, I thought about that picture of K.B. and it filled me with incredible sadness. I thought about how K.B. had died waiting for me to come home. How I want to be around friends and family members but I really don’t know what to say to them. My heart sank at the thought of yet another year not seeing the Philippines, and the streets of Manila, not being able to observe traditions, and, more important for me, being surrounded by the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of my home. And yet, here I am in a strange country, thankful, somehow, for the existence of Asian Groceries and pockets of Asian communities.

It is freeing to admit to myself truths about the turns my life has taken. One of them is that America will always be an unpleasant (highways and car culture, not enough trains, hostility on most fronts and levels of society) and absurd (examples are too many to mention) place where M., the most important person in my life, happens to be from and lives in. This is where I met the love of my life and where I intend to stay. The fact that such a twisted and cursed place has allowed me to meet and spend time with some good people is a miracle in itself. Some of the best moments in my life happened here, and this is where I finally became my own person. Another is that it is possible to have tender feelings for things, people or places I am at odds with—I feel both tenderness and resentment for both my home country and this new home.

I come into 2023 thinking about who I am as it relates to where I am. I tend to see the Philippines as the place that contains traces of who I used to be, and America as the place where I am trying to figure a new self. For the most part, I feel as if I have changed and improved so much in the past four years. That time has also taught me to rest easy on expectations and resolutions. Things rarely worked out the way I intended, it’s better to walk through and look for the little morsels of goodness and warmth I can find. I want to teach myself to take time and take a good look, touch things when I can, notice smells and sounds. I want to walk into a year more cognizant of what comes to my senses. I want for a sensual year, and to enjoy, however little, what the rest of my days and years have to offer.

ImagiDreaming; Miscellany, yet again

Before anything else, I’m thrilled to share that M. has started his own blog on another hosting site. He loves theme parks and endlessly conceptualizes rides which I think are great but would realistically never come to life. So he writes about them in detail instead. You can find these ideas at ImagiDreaming with Fesh!

A set of poems recently appeared in the issue 1, volume 15 of Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, you can read it here.

Without giving away too much, I also want to share about a book I’ve been working on since 2019, and has moved into becoming a work that uses fiction and poetry. It isn’t a verse novel like Charlotte or the Iliad. It should be interesting, and I am taking my time, as always, knowing I will arrive at the best way to shape it. I’ve done away with the pretense of having a writing life or of even having a network of writers. There is no pressure to publish, even though I’ve gotten in touch with a publisher (who gave a soft ‘no’).

Most of the time I spend shaping a domestic life with M., or working. I take somewhat long drives and explore the city we’ve moved into at the end of 2021. Outside of New York City, where M. and I met and made a life for about a year, car culture dominates the wide open spaces of peripheral-urban “cities” designed to sustain mono-cultures created by corporate monopolies. From lawn grass in the suburbs to box malls of the same three or four names, and movie theaters that, at any given day, will show movies made by big studios. Once, on an exploratory drive, I took a detour into a subdivision that was so still and devoid of any movement, with houses designed the same way and painted the same colors of beige and gray, they seemed more like mausoleums than homes. Then again, all this is punctuated by lush greenery, beautiful wildlife, good food (which I might start writing about, as well—I am too busy enjoying myself cooking and consuming), and the occasional kooky and weird places.

Obituary: Kitty Boy

Kitty Boy, a sweet cowboy until the end.

The beginning of 2022 has been clear and crisp, like a good sunny day after heavy rain. I started a new job in a new city. I felt invigorated and ready to write again. It is, for the most part, marked by fresh starts. It’s like walking around a flower garden when gentle sprinklers go off.

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Yesterday, Saturday, I received news from my sister that our cat Kitty Boy was very sick. Within the same day, she informed us that he has passed away. I didn’t cry, I couldn’t because of the shock and the profound sadness I felt. I left home in 2018, without so much as an “I’ll be back” to him. When I saw Kitty Boy again in 2019 he was skittish around me and seemed to refuse to be near me. Whether it was because he’d forgotten about me or he was upset at my departure, I wouldn’t be able to know. He can’t speak.

(I left again to finish my master’s degree. I graduated in 2020 and have not been able to come home since.)

What I do know, mostly from spending time with him, from his gestures and gaze, is that he truly loved me. And I loved him too. It’s a gut-wrenching that he passed without seeing me for the last time. But as I reeled from the waves of grief and shock, I felt a purring furry skeleton at my feet—Coco, the senior Manhattanite tabby Mitch and me adopted one autumn day, telling ourselves we “were just looking”. Because I wasn’t expecting to take a cat home with me that day, we had to take Coco inside a cardboard box issued by the shelter. She hated it.

But slowly, we grew into her. And she, like Kitty Boy and every cat who has been with me, will pass knowing that I love them.

Coco, who resents flying economy class but also refuses to pay for her ticket. Or rent.

So, as with everything in my life, I would rather focus my energy on what (or who) I have rather than what has already been lost. Adopting stray cats mean to me that they will never be lonely or suffering, and that they will pass knowing that somebody loves them.

I remember Kitty Boy loved sleeping curled up against my stomach when I slept on my side. Coco loves doing that, too.

Post-script:

Doesn’t matter to me if you hate cats or love them as much as I do, it’s all about the love we give to other people and other beings on this earth.

(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