How daily my life.

View from my desk, at this hour

25 March 2017
1:26 AM
Manila, Philippines

Dear M.,

What a holy mess, my desk is, at this hour. And every day, I suppose, looks like this. I sit at my desk and write and work, and somehow, without looking, the days have turned into another week, and the weeks into months, and it’s my life, the life I make, is what it is.

I am reminded of a part of a poem:

from Otherwise Smooth
Rosmarie Waldrop

How daily my life. How tiny the impurities around which words might accrue. Worlds. Whorls. Pearls? Once I stood in a town where nothing was left unchanged but the clouds driven from the east. Now I learn from the sea. Always the same, always different, brackish body, uncertain. The unusual I hold at bay by taking pictures. To let it accrue to memory without having to experience it? Do we live this way, walking, as if we could, on thin air? But the sycamore stands in the yard all day and all night. And now, though still lifeless in appearance, quickens. Roots gripping farther down.

What is one place do I feel most like myself? I suppose it is before this desk, my holy altar of broken prayers and broken words, where I come to make myself whole again, if at all possible, and if the days are kinder.

It is past one in the morning and I am again wrestling with a poem with no end in sight. I don’t know how long I’ll be working tonight, but this is the kind of work I get out of bed for. The rest—all the rest of it that pays the bills and reminds me I’m still a citizen of a society—they’re something I have to do in order to survive. This work though—the work of my life, our lives, M., the work of showing up at our desks to write with our being—it’s what I do to be alive.

The hour is late. I’m not even sure if I’m making sense. But: how daily my life. Most days I forget and lament, where am I going? What am I doing? I am lost in my own life and I’m afraid I’ve gone and done it, wasted it all away. But I sit at my desk anyway. And nights like this will remind me why. Something I need to keep repeating over and over: it’s a writing life.

Yours,
T.

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I had thought myself frail

Nuhlimkilaka – Koskimo (likely in Quatsino Sound, Island of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada). Kwakiutl person wearing an oversize mask and hands representing a forest spirit, Nuhlimkilaka (“bringer of confusion”). Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, ca. 13 November 1914. (via)

15 March 2017
06:02 PM
Manila, Philippines

Dear M. —

1.
I remember my grandfather and the day he died. Seeing his last breath leave his body was one of the most excruciating moments of my life. Seeing my father howl with pain rendered me helpless and powerless.

The days that followed were surreal: accepting the absence of a person you loved is a difficult task, but one we must all do. I not only felt weak in the knees—I felt it all the way to my soul. That hollowness.

2.
I am thirty-one today. It’s nothing extraordinary—more like a quiet settling, inside myself. Knowing I’m older. Thinking I’m beginning another decade, which will hopefully see myself grow more into the person I hoped to be. I’m melancholy but also anxious, and I’ve yet to get to the bottom of these feelings.

Have you ever wondered about the self you leave behind as you age? Do you ever revisit your past dreams and concerns? And what do you make of them?

3.
I think of my grandfather and the life he’s lived. If I’m being honest, his death, no matter how shattering, was his greatest lesson to me. He taught me how to find the thread of grace amidst the grief. I got to know the recesses of sorrow, but I also wrote through that, and what a gift.

4.
Here is a poem, one of the many that I’ve read during hard times:

from Fragment Forty
H.D.

I had thought myself frail;
a petal,
with light equal
on leaf and under-leaf.

I had thought myself frail;
a lamp,
shell, ivory or crust of pearl,
about to fall shattered,
with flame spent.

I cried:
“I must perish,
I am deserted,
an outcast, desperate
in this darkness,”
(such fire rent me with Hesperus,)
then the day broke

5.
I wonder what tomorrow brings. What this new year has in store for me. Do I feel nervous? Yes. But I’m hoping I have enough grit, I have enough grace. The thing about weakness is that it’s energy, too. That it can be transformed into something useful, into a thing that belongs to you.

Yours,
T.

How the light gets in

Over Sea, Under Stone by Martin Johansson

Over Sea, Under Stone by Martin Johansson

14 March 2016
2:16 PM
Manila, Philippines

My dear M.–

I’m not sure I’m what could qualify as a strong person. There are so many things that I’m scared about; I sometimes stop and ask myself, when have I become this human being? Someone who has a lot of anxieties and can scarcely go a week without spiralling into some kind of panic attack. I want to say, I don’t know. It’s so much easier that way, maybe, to shrug my shoulders and sort of helplessly laugh, I don’t know! And then go about my days.

But I do know the hows, and the specific when of it. See, all my life I was living with good days and bad days, until about five years ago when the bad became worse. And then it was simply a matter of letting yourself slide deeper and deeper into the pit because the rest of it—living—was such a shit alternative.

Any one thing can make me strong: the way the sunlight beckons at my desk at eight in the morning, the memory of the sea, the knowledge that I am loved and wanted, finishing writing a poem I think might be worth a read, letters from friends, coming home from a trip, and so on.

But the one thing that has made me stronger: digging into myself and finding the desire to be here. To occupy space, and to know that I can be, just be.

I realise that a lot of it has to do with having a mental illness and accepting that I am not a lesser person because of it. Oh, there are some nights when everything would be inexplicable and I know for certain how broken I am. Some afternoons though, like this one—I can almost live with it, not being put back together as I used to be. I’m chipped and scarred, and who knows how many ways I can still shatter. But that’s the thing: that’s how the light gets in.

Yours,
T.

Remembering and Forgetting

The sky, and only ever the sky

The sky, and only ever the sky (Taken morning of 29 October 2016)

30 October 2016
2:48 AM
Tagaytay

M.–

I’ve taken a break from work, from the ills of my life, from the dreadful politics of the city, and from the day-to-day of trying to rise above it all in order to remain sane. I want to say, I’ve taken a break from myself, but I bring the whole of who I am wherever I go I suppose (as if I had any say in the matter).

We have a long weekend in observation of all saints’ and all souls’ day next week. A lot of people are going home to their respective provinces, or spending time at churches and cemeteries to remember their dead.

I have a feeling that most of Manila is emptied out by now, a rare occurrence often reserved for boxing matches. Those of us who have loved ones buried or kept in crypts within the city, however, are taking this opportunity to leave, if only for a few days. I think of my grandfather and his ashes, of bones turning to dust. I think of his frail body leaving this earth, seven years ago come November 9th.

I am back in Tagaytay again, this place I’ve been mooning over for years and years. Every time I return it is the same and not the same. I know her face and she knows mine, and yet there’s something different with us both.

The past two weeks I’ve been involved in several conversations about the cities and bodies. How my own body and the city I am in reflect separate and yet similar geographies. The self changes as the city changes, I told someone.

I mean, look: I carried with me the trappings of someone whose head is full of urban concerns. And yet when faced with the bluest sky this morning, and that quiet little volcano surrounded by the bluest lake, I want to weep. How much longer can Manila suit my life, or my life suit Manila?

A book I brought with me—Animal Triste by Monika Maron. Here is an excerpt I’ve been sitting with for the past few hours:

“I like to think about the brachiosaurus. Besides my lover and the brachiosaurus, there is not much else I like to think about. Over the years I have learned not to remember what I would rather forget. I don’t understand why people clutter their memories with mountains of inconsequential events, most of them not worth experiencing in the first place, so they can rummage around in them a hundred times or more and parade them as if they were proof positive of a life well spent. In my life there was not much that didn’t deserve to be forgotten; consequently, the version I deem worth preserving has become a rather condensed life.

…Forgetting is the fainting of the soul. Remembering has nothing at all to do with not forgetting. The whole world had forgotten the brachiosaurus. For 150 million years he had been lost to earthly, maybe even cosmic, memory, until Professor Janesch found a few bones in Tendaguru. From then on, we began to remember him, which means: We reinvented him, his tiny brain, his food, habits, contemporaries, the long span of his species’ life, and his death. Now he exists again, and every child knows him.

Since its passing, I have been inventing and reinventing that night, forty or fifty years ago, when my lover was sitting upright with his back against the wall, surrounded by carnivorous plants, like all the nights I spent with my lover. This way time passes and yet stands still.”

— from Animal Triste by Monika Maron, translated by Brigitte Goldstein

What does this city remember about me? What has it forgotten? I am not the same person I was that wrote you letters from this same place three years ago, although I have been here many times since then. I think this trip is my third time for this year. And yet it is still me, I am still in love with the mountains, I still dream of living here someday.

Remembering has nothing at all to do with not forgetting. I wonder if this is true, or if it only sounds beautiful because it offers me the possibility of rekindling with every little memory I have unknowingly parted ways with.

Here: I am sitting at the balcony, my feet freezing. I am facing the other side of the city, the lights as small as the stars above me. I am wrapped in a hand-knitted scarf I bought on a whim in Hanoi, my hair trying to escape from its braid. Who am I at this moment? I have changed the moment I arrived here, I felt it keenly, and I know it will happen again once I leave. What kind of self will I be bringing back home, and how long will I be able to hold on to her?

Yours,
T.

Seeing and Retelling

New art at HoliCOW, Cebu

New art at HoliCOW, Cebu

2 May 2016
11:50 PM
Cebu, Philippines

M.–

Hopped on a plane again, and now I am here in Cebu. It’s a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Manila, and another place which has charmed me ever since I visited it for the first time last year. K. and M. live here, too. We all went to the same university together.

The first thing I did after checking in at the hotel was to get a cab that would take me to HoliCOW. A portmanteau for Holistic Coalition of the Willing, it is a group of furniture designers concerned with sustainability and innovation. Their art gallery/pop-up furniture store is one of my favourite spaces to date. K., my darling friend, is one of the founders. I was so excited to see new art; I just felt so warm inside. It’s about discovery, yes, but also that lovely feeling you have when you see creativity at work. There’s so much talent here in Cebu, and I guess you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I have thought about moving here, too. I wanted to be surrounded by this kind of energy; it makes your blood sing.

I told them all about my trip to Hanoi, but we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. Then there’s the weaving of our stories and ideas, which somehow always end up about poetry and life and furniture design and art and the universe—you know how it is. K. is a poet, too, and M. is a graphic designer/illustrator. We were part of the same literary organisation back in college, that’s how we came to know one another. How fantastic that I am able to hold on to this friendship, after nearly destroying and/or abandoning everything else? I feel extremely lucky.

I brought a few books with me on this trip. It’s alright, I’m laughing along with you—fat chance of me being able to read them all, right? But it’s what we do! Ha.

One of them I’m rereading, which is Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s North to the Orient. (I think I’m on a travel-book-kind of bent for the next few months.) She talks about the act of writing about our lives, and it resonates so much with me at the moment:

There is, of course, always the personal satisfaction of writing down one’s own experiences so they may be saved, caught and pinned under glass, hoarded against the winter of forgetfulness. Time has been cheated a little, at least in one’s own life, and a personal, trivial immortality of an old self assured. And there is another personal satisfaction: that of the people who like to recount their adventures, the diary-keepers, the story-tellers, the letter-writers, a strange race of people who feel half cheated of an experience unless it is retold. It does not really exist until it is put into words. As though a little doubting or dull, they could not see it until it is repeated. For, paradoxically enough, the more unreal an experience becomes—translated from real action into unreal words, dead symbols for life itself—the more vivid it grows. Not only does it seem more vivid, but its essential core becomes clearer. One says excitedly to an audience, “Do you see—I can’t tell you how strange it was—we all of us felt…” although actually, at the time of the incident, one was not conscious of such feeling, and only become so in the retelling. It is an inexplicable as looking all afternoon at a gray stone on a beach, and not realizing, until one tries to put it on canvas, that is in reality bright blue.

And perhaps that is how it is with me—with us, and why we do this. I myself had been thinking these past two weeks: I feel split somehow. Not splintered, but more like I have strayed away from the center one too many times, in separate directions. Just thinking and feeling. Moving to keep things whole, says Mark Strand. But also writing to piece it all back together.

Love,
T.

Slow to Process

27 April 2016
12:49 AM
Manila, Philippines

M.–

I got back last Friday but it seems like I’m in a trance ever since. There’s so much that happened in that week in Hanoi that it’s taking me some time to unpack everything. And here I am, asking again—how do you do it? I’m so slow to process. It feels like I’m never going to recover, and I’m not sure I want to.

The different parts of myself demand different kinds of unpacking, too. There’s the self that processes things through images and moments and poetry, thus my poetry journal, which remains incomplete and late as well. There’s the self that longs to tell you stories, which is what this place is for. There’s the self that wants to relive the days and revel through the photographs I’ve taken, the self that wants to share even just a fraction of the experience to friends and family, to spread that wonder and awe. That self is what I allow to upload photos on social media. (And the other self that observes this activity and has a separate commentary on how we enjoy things is another creature that I’ll have to entertain some other time.) There’s another self that longs to dissect the whole trip as an introvert and a discoverer at the same time, that I’ve toyed with the idea of creating another blog just to give in to that urge. All of this, and I arrive at the same question you had: what am I doing this for?

I smiled when I read about your desire to have more than one brain and two eyes. Yes please. And perhaps more than a set of limbs! Ah, to be able to halve our selves, and then halve these halves once more, so that pieces of our soul can scatter away to do everything all at once. Then, at the end of the day, for all of them to make a journey back home and return to one piece, and put together everything while we’re sleeping.

I would like to think, M., that it is something that we are destined to carry—to not just see things, but observe them. To contemplate constantly, to feel things deeply, and without remorse. It is more a gift than a burden, although the latter happens when we have nowhere to put all these thoughts down. I think this space we have carved for ourselves can be a safe place to leave everything that’s in our heads and hearts. Even if just temporarily. Or to exorcise a sentiment that has dogged us for so long that it needs to be spoken about, then filed away for good.

Yours,
T.

P.S. I think about death more often than I should. One of these days I’ll tell you about it.

P.P.S. Or: how do you feel about having a writing map again? We can start in June maybe.

P.P.P.S. I’ve been following your posts about Brooklyn actually. I have a draft of another letter in response that I wrote earlier but haven’t had a chance to finish yet. Will you go ahead with the blog series about books? Will it be a new blog? Apart from a travel blog, I also wanted a place where I can write about books I’ve read and films I’ve watched, which I kind of already started but has remained stagnant for a few years now. Ugh! Why can’t we have more time to do these things which fire up our soul instead of work?

P.P.P.P.S. Please bear with me as I backdate my letters to you from Hanoi. Next week I’ll be on a plane again, but will just be traveling within the country.

Digging A Path to Follow

Along Lý Quốc Sư Street

Along Lý Quốc Sư Street

18 April 2016
2:02 AM
Hanoi, Vietnam

M.–

I thought it was three in the morning, but I forget that Hanoi is one hour behind Manila. It is 19 degrees celsius and raining outside, quite a novelty. I keep wondering how hot it is back home, my thoughts returning to it again and again. Home, not the weather, I mean. Every new city I’ve been to, I seem to have Manila in my mind. Is that love or exasperation, I don’t really know right now.

Today my friend S. and I just walked and walked and walked. It’s all quite lovely, the charm of Old Quarters. You’re here and not here at the same time. And it’s not just the architecture where the old meets the new, where the lives of people go on ordinarily as they should amidst construction of more modern cafés and banks—it’s also about your place in the middle of all this. How you carve out space for yourself in an already busy street, just standing at a corner trying to take it all in.

S. and I talked about the seemingly non-identity of tourists. There’s that element of being able to do what you want to do, and who cares about all the rest. On the surface, you think you’re doing it because why not, and also, you’re not going to be meeting these people again. But upon further examination, I think it’s really this—every one of us here is a stranger. I am not a Tourist, I am a tourist. I am much a tourist as the next one, and he or she the same. I could be the guy lugging around a big hiking backpack. I could be the family being driven around in a bicycle cart. I could be the tall woman in a blue-striped dress holding a map, wondering where to next. I could be the old man down by Hoàn Kiếm Lake, smoking and sitting with his dog. And they could all be me. We are all existing and living in this place and nobody here would know us.

Emily Dickinson is suddenly in my head: I’m Nobody! Who are you? The non-identity comes first before the question, and in this moment, the question doesn’t really matter. I can do anything because I have lost who I am, if only temporarily. And this loss is such a gift.

Yours,
T.

Do not hurry; do not rest.

Two in the morning, passing through Cần Thơ Bridge in Hanoi, Vietnam

Two in the morning, passing through Cần Thơ Bridge in Hanoi, Vietnam

17 April 2016
2:45 AM
Hanoi, Vietnam

M.–

I brought Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life here in Hanoi. It was your birthday gift to me years ago. I packed it with my bags as some sort of talisman almost. I don’t really know what I was hoping to happen. I’m sure my decision was motivated by an unnamed desire.

Chapter one begins with an epigraph from Goethe: “Do not hurry; do not rest.” It speaks so much of how my trip has been so far, and I only landed about an hour and forty-five minutes ago.

My flight was delayed because of a previous flight. It was the kind of waiting that rips me apart after the day I’ve had (long story), but as always I took it as an opportunity to observe and think and write in my head. I would like to think that you do this, too—use the world as your canvas, and take in as much as you can. Of course there’s a part of me that longs to run away from all the unknown variables—everyone I don’t know who is within the vicinity of my personal space is a variable—but sitting for hours with all these stories around me, who am I to say no?

I’m exhausted though, and long for sleep. Another letter tomorrow. For now, some errant thoughts I scribbled in my journal:

1:00 AM thereabouts. Noi Bai Airport.

Marveled at the cleanliness and newness of being in another country again. Woman flustered, dropping booking ticket, spilling her bag. Thought, that’s me, in another lifetime. Perhaps any arbitrary turning along the way. Two teenage boys escorted all the way through everything since Manila. The privilege of being white, I mused. It only took me thirty years to get here. Guy stamping passports looks disgruntled. Probably by the fact that we’re about thirty minutes late. Asking why we’re here. Pleasure. Tourist. The longer and farther away from home I am, the more I am discovering and getting to know my body and who I am as a citizen and person. Got through. Luggage showed up right away for once. Airport transfer. All done without saying a word to each other. And here I thought the absence of language would be a disaster. But the body is a language, too.

Almost an hour to the hotel. The city is so quiet and beautiful like this. We passed by the Cần Thơ Bridge. Spectacular. The Mekong River beneath us. What have I done to be here, right now? Everything I can, I suppose. Lights everywhere. Bathing our faces before the distance returns us to the shadows.

Yours,
T.

On Self-Love and Self-Sabotage

16 April 2016
3:31 AM
Manila

M.–

I have no idea how you do this—constantly pack your bags and decide what to take with you and what to leave behind. I suppose over time you get very efficient at it, and you come to know for a certainty what things are non-negotiable, and what things are replaceable.

I think I have been packing my bag for a week now, not only because I’m worried about the weight and how much it’ll cost if I go beyond seven kilograms, but that sense of security and peace of mind I’m trying to chase after—if I bring this I’ll be okay.

Then I catch myself thinking, isn’t the objective to be lost? Isn’t the goal to completely assimilate yourself with the unknown, and see what happens? (A voice in my head whispers, there’s a difference between being lost and being foolish.)

Anyway, I’m at a hotel now. Later in the evening I’ll be going to the airport. My flight leaves at ten. My dilemma right now is choosing between a smaller luggage and a bigger one. I’m trying to decide which is more advantageous for me on the way back, as this is all checked in anyway. I know the answer is obvious and staring me right in the face, but maybe I can’t see it because I’m myopic.

Also, I forgot my meds. At least, the ones that matter. Headache and tummy aches—I’ve got that covered. But when my anxiety arrives without warning, or the darkness comes for me unexpectedly, well. I suppose I’ll just have to fight it. My sister tells me it’s self-sabotage, that I intentionally left it at home. I don’t have an answer to that.

Off to another adventure it seems. Here’s to our attempts at making our world bigger. I want to say that I’m running off to meet my future self who’s waiting for me to catch up so we can finally move forward. I really want to believe that.

Yours,
T.

Here Again

Window Seat by Jim Darling

Window Seat by Jim Darling

15 April 2016
2:42 AM
Manila

M.–

Well, I am here again. I’ve been meaning to go back to this place for quite some time, but I’ve always had excuses, always something else to do. We’ve been mostly quiet, too, and I am hoping, with all my heart, that your silence means you are having the time of your life, that you are outside and meeting the world. Thinking about you happy, in the middle of doing things you love—I don’t mind it at all, the distance.

And yet I miss you, and so I am here.

My days are pretty hectic as I am about to go away on a trip tomorrow. Most of the time it’s full of doubts and questioning my decisions (as I am wont to do). And the tiny spaces left I fill with poetry and anything else that would keep me anchored to the present moment.

What are your anchors now, I wonder. Has living in another country finally become another piece of your life falling into place, or is it still something you’re trying to figure out? Do you wake up every morning thinking that this is all so new, or have you found yourself surprised that you’ve grown familiar enough with everything to develop and nurture rituals and routine?

I sometimes dream of staging a disappearance from the life I’ve known and everybody who has known me, and reappear somewhere else, in another city or country, unknown and unnamed. The dream to remake myself is constant.

Well—perhaps not remaking so much as restructuring. Rearranging into the person I am meant to be, if only because it’s taking such a long time to arrive there myself, by myself, in this life.

I keep asking, how much longer? Somewhere at the back of my mind, an echo: Perhaps it takes as long as it takes.

Be well.

Yours,
T.