Listening to Red (Taylor’s Version) in the Tuna Capital of the Philippines

General Santos is hot in a way that I’ve only ever experienced in my parents’ hometown, where a glass (or two) of ice-cold Coca-Cola in the afternoons is a staple not just for its sweetness but for the relief it brings from the relentless heat. But unlike Tarlac or Pampanga, there’s a vastness to this city that reminds us how close to the sea we are–the car drives down the highway and kicks up enough to dust to cover its entire body. The week or so that we’ve been here has been studded with nightly visits to the local SM where we shop in all the same stores for different things. At an outlet, I pick up the same kind of jeans I already own in a different wash. At the department store, I try on the same type of slipper in three different colors, split the Buy 1 Take 1 deal with a friend. It thrills us to think we’ve gotten a deal on things we can’t find back home even if we don’t really know for sure because the pandemic has mostly kept us away from malls back in Metro Manila. Nonetheless, our days here are long because the days here are long and it feels good to do something familiar in a new way, which has basically been the story of my life lately.

General Santos Pan Philippine Highway

My hotel room is the kind of pale yellow that was considered modern in 2002. Some mornings, I wake up and for a moment think that I’m in Fontana, a leisure park in Pampanga my family used to go to once a year when my Mom wanted to conduct our Yearly Family Strategic Planning where my siblings and I would talk about our five-year plans, complete with flip-charts and Pentel pens (there’s nothing more nostalgic to me than the smell of a freshly opened permanent marker). Having a twelve-year-old plan a seventeen-year-old’s life is a pretty funny thing. Needless to say, I didn’t have a house, car, hot boyfriend, seventeen lipglosses, and Cher Horowotiz’s wardrobe at age seventeen.

Hotel Room

When we travel these days it’s mostly for training or planning, words that you become accustomed to when your family’s business is in Organizational Development. As a child, I used to spend summers at our company’s office, watching the Training Associates pack kits with plastic balls, string, markers, crayons, masking tape, flipchart paper, expandable plastic envelopes, and name tags. I’d help sort the pages of the workbooks to get them ready for binding and would be thrilled whenever there was a misprint because that meant I could keep the scratch paper and use it to draw or write or make a paper fortune-teller. These are all tasks that I do at work now and every time, I get an odd sense of deja vu, like I’m in some strange kind of time loop: at once nine years old, arranging papers and waiting for a misprint, and thirty, complaining about the printer ink as I scrutinize a print-out and ask the IT guy what we can do about it. In some ways, it’s like I’ve always been doing what we do: moving from place to place with supplies, eating snacks in air-conditioned hotel rooms, working on documentation after, gearing up to go again. In other ways, it feels completely new: after all, I’ve never been thirty before.

Hotel Complex Exterior with religious sign above

A few days ago, I found myself watching a Taylor Swift interview where she was talking about the endeavor of re-recording and re-releasing her music, how it’s given her the space to improve and revisit her old work without the heartache and emotional turmoil which inspired it. I listened to the entire album on the plane ride over and know exactly what she means. I was turning twenty-two (yes, like the song) when the album came out and was going through a tough time, experiencing heartbreak in an intense, painful, lingering, more grown-up way than I’d ever experienced before. Looking back, it seems so far away and so petty, but I suppose it was pivotal too, in its own way.

Of all the songs on the Red re-release, my favorites are two of the new tracks which Taylor’s labelled “From the Vault”: “Better Man” and “Nothing New” (feat. my other fave, Phoebe Bridgers) which are both folk/country, melancholic, and focus mostly on the complexity of emotion–how you can be at peace with a decision and still have it sting like a motherfucker at the same time, how you can contemplate change and still not have the power to do anything about it.

I know the bravest thing I ever did was run

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again

But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man

Better Man, Taylor Swift

This has been a year studded with painful but mindful and in the end, I think, correct decisions. You can wish someone well and know that they don’t belong in your life. You can hope someone gets better and still refuse to forgive them for the pain they caused you and other people. You can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing you dodged a bullet (or a torpedo) and still hope for a version of the story where neither of you is weapon of mass destruction.

All this to say, the biggest part of my life that’s been impacted by having to navigate the emotional turmoils of bidding friends goodbye, making difficult life choices, and being more conscientious about the energy I let into my life, has been the work I’m doing on my thesis. On the one hand, everything seems in tact: I passed the defense with flying colors and theoretically, the edits to make are clear, the adjustments and additions have been noted and relegated to my spreadsheet that’s six scrolls long. But on the other hand, I’ve made zero progress with the actual poems.

Everyone talks about how painful it is to lose lovers, but not a lot of people talk about how painful it is to lose writing buddies, partners-in-crime in craft. For a writer, letting someone in on a first draft is like sharing a big secret: I am a cliche, don’t tell anyone.

When you lose a confidant in craft, you lose a part of your process and are left needing to reinvent that safe space for yourself. One of the biggest struggles I’ve had is being torn between letting the emotional mechanisms of poetry run their natural course, of creating poetry about things that I’ve realized and am interested in and have experienced, and on the other hand, not letting that experience have any more power over me than it did previously.

How can a person know everything

At eighteen, but nothing at twenty-two?

Nothing New, Taylor Swift

I guess right now, all I can really do is try.

I’m writing this blog entry in the freezing cold hotel room, right smack in the middle of dry, hot, thirty-eight degree General Santos, because our flight’s been delayed four hours. The cafe across the street has called to confirm our lunch reservation and this, too, makes me feel young and old at the same time. Like my Mother, I say, yes, we’ll be there and we’ll take the Group Platter. Like myself, I say, I’ll order drinks later.

Me in the parking lot

The Story Shop: An Experiment

A few months ago, Conchitina Cruz (aka Chingbee) wrote an entry entitled On Writing & Value which talked about how poetry is perceived in the Philippine setting and how the value of poetry (and literature in general) is often equated to nil because “value equals money” is the mainstream form of thought when in truth what literature has to offer is something more than that; the money is beside the point and somehow by making it about money, there is the ironic result of currently not being able to make money from literature in the Philippines. (She explains it better, so please go and look at that entry in the link above.)

Reading Chingbee’s blog entry really got me thinking about how I’ve been treated re: my writing, thus far. On one hand, I’m grateful for all opportunities I’ve gotten when it comes to publication but on the other hand, I am sad that almost all of these opportunities have been presented by international (read: not local) literary outfits. That got me thinking about the dynamic of creatives and consumers, the act of buying something or having it made and what would happen if that dynamic were flipped on its head? What if based on whatever is given for payment, I would write a story or two or three or four or five?

As a result, I’ve decided to begin this experiment called The Story Shop wherein every Friday, I’ll be opening up shop so to speak to accept orders and payments for stories which I will write and send out throughout the week. Guidelines are up and yes, the shop is open. Order form here.

Remembering Backwards 04.17-04.24

Saturday: I find myself curled up in bed at 3:00 pm, waking up from a nap I hoped would cure me of wondering about how things go wrong, how bad news springs itself on you without warning. There is a feeling like trains derailing, like weighty things coming loose. I respond to texts. I’m going out tonight. The feeling lingers–I realize I’d been dreaming of my father. We were having coffee, he was lecturing me about going home more often. If I told my sister this, she would try and reenact it and so I don’t. Until now, I don’t tell anyone. The act of asking is beside the point. I take Noel’s advice and leave space. It would not be the same, it is not the same. My father is a ghost. I think of Hemingway and the cracks and the light and how much of it is healthy to let in. (Maybe not as much as Hemingway did.) Friday: I sleep in. Most days I’m up by 05:30 am; it is my day off so I leave it until 08:00 am which I have convinced myself is a good time to eat breakfast. When I wake up, my flatmates are getting ready to leave for work. I make myself a sandwich, slice apples. We share. I read a little. The book is not as good as the one I just finished. I will finish it faster. I make another sandwich. I read about Luis Katigbak dying. He was nice. I remember him asking for snacks. It reminds me of my father and a dream I have yet to have. Thursday: Free tells me I’ve been hot-headed lately. It irks me but only because I know it’s true. I try to be carefree, joke around a little. I let her tease me about being awkward and uncoordinated. It’s a hectic day at work. It’s my Friday so I indulge myself on my lunch break and dream of a life where I don’t have to hunt down disasters for a living. Wednesday: I wake up to the release of Young Forever. I had a shit day Tuesday and wake up feeling like I’m hungover even if I’m not. I wake up awake, as though I haven’t slept at all, am not coming out of anything. I watch the video. The song is beautiful. My favorite line is in parentheticals, as subbed. (Dream, Hope, keep going) I take a shower, rush to the office. Frances and I watch the music video together. We speculate re: what really happened. I am a fool for plot. For instance, the day before was terrible. I feel like this has dropped on my lap wrapped in metallic paper. I watch it all day. I am a bit sad I didn’t stay up for it. But I didn’t know. I hear my mother’s voice anyway: ye of little faith. (She has never said this to me in real life.) Tuesday: It was so bad I don’t want to talk about it. Monday: I am at dinner with a friend who is leaving to go on a break. I hear her talk about things passionately, feel her talk about her feelings, about the inescapable existential crisis. I feel myself try to hold it together. I understand, but I don’t. For the nth time, I kick myself for thinking that it must be so easy to be so broken: everyone forgives you for saying can’t, can’t, can’t. Sunday: I am at work.

Saturday: I am with my bestfriends drinking somewhere in BGC. We drench ourselves in Amaretto while watching men fight on the TV screen. We’re laughing and laughing and laughing. One of us is missing; I am afraid it will be like that in the future. In two hours, we will be on our way home. Friday: Keavin and I have a late dinner date. Before that, I write myself into what feels like a coma. Finish a story, submit it. I re-read and re-write and re-word and it’s therapeutic and exhausting. Lia tells me my story reminds her of someone who already exists. When she shows me, I feel myself swoon. I didn’t invent this person. Thursday: Joelle comes home early and I’m not in the mood to talk but I know she wants to tell me stories about work, so I ask and she tells me. I lend her Lydia Davis’s book about cows. Keavin calls me on the phone. I’m not in the mood to talk but I know he wants to talk to me about work and politics, so I ask and he tells me. It’s always about choice: what happens and what doesn’t. I am a fool for plot. Later, I curl up with a Helen Oyeyemi book. The plot is aimless but sharp like a needle in the hands of someone who knows what it is they don’t want to make: two characters killing each other over and over again. Wednesday: By 02:30 in the afternoon, I am convinced there will be no big reveal re: the music videos. We’ll never know what really happened or it won’t be told to us. We are left to infer. Like all true love stories, it isn’t enough. Tuesday: It was so bad I don’t want to talk about it. Monday: After dinner, we laugh and laugh and laugh about zodiac signs and compatibility, reading aloud from what we’ve Googled and pretending we’re skeptics. When we pause, our stomachs ache. When the descriptions hit our situations and personalities spot-on, we swoon. We feel invented. Sunday: I am at work.

All In Threes: Writing Updates!

I don’t usually do these types of posts because I fear that they are too self-indulgent but I haven’t posted a writing update in ages so I don’t feel too irked putting this up. The older I get, the better I feel about both rejections and acceptances for publication. I remember being fretful and dreading clicking the “Submit” button because back then everything felt like a critique not just of the work but of myself but those are things you learn from and it’s become something I’ve found I can love. I remember a beautiful rejection letter by The Atlas Review from last year that I still keep in my Inbox as if to say get your work out there, it’s worth it. (And it usually is, whatever the outcome.) That said, it does feel extra good for work to be accepted–as though I’ve found a place for my babies, like they’ve gotten into college or found a job.

I’m also very interested in the time between which stories are written and when they are made available for consumption: it is usually so long for seemingly so little, but it’s a short time to hold your breath in the long run.  Anything is shorter that forever, which is also never. Here are some stories of mine I hope you guys will enjoy. 🙂

  1. Science Lessons (TAYO Literary Magazine)

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    Illustration by Diego Ibarra

    This is a series of three short stories all having to do with the scientific method of investigation. They were written during my chemistry classes which I both loved for their lack of structure (so many rules, so many exceptions, so many things to consider) and hated for their tediousness (so many rules, exceptions, things to consider). The story that’s available online is called Nomenclature (the study of naming things); in chemistry, we give names to things based on structure, how they are arranged, predisposed. In real life, it often seems to be the opposite: we behave according to our names, roles, circumstances.

  2. Sunning A Mattress (Southern Pacific Review)| 

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    Illustration by Liana Maris

    Around this time last year, I had friendship on the mind a lot. I’d gone to the beach twice that summer: once with old friends and again with people I didn’t know very well. I was thinking about the process of asking friends to come along, who was chosen, who wasn’t, who was allowed to drop in last minute, who wasn’t. I thought of preparing, of the guilt that follows telling someone where you have been, of tip-toeing around why they weren’t there. After this got published in the Southern Pacific Review, it was released as part of The Elementsa chapbook project I did with my friend Liana Maris which focused on friendship as a force of nature and how it is a living thing: changing as we age, evolving even as it is being defined.

  3. Jim, Adam, I (Alphabet Soup) 

    This series of five stories began as part of a project called The Experiment that I was part of in late 2014; I collaborated with Arabella Paner (collage artist) and Stephanie Gonzaga (poet) and we put out a chapbook every week where we created output based on a singular word or theme. We were interested in execution, in form, in fragments, in elongation and cutting. I thought scissors, halves, twos. Submitting to Alphabet Soup was spur-of-the-moment decision; I hadn’t thought of giving my twins out (you’ll understand when you read the stories haha) to anyone yet, but when Katie put up the call and talked about writing stories that were out there, that dealt with the anyhow, the anywhere, the anywhen, I figured why not.

 

A Clumsy Surrogate

These days, I can’t stop reading: the thought of leaving even an hour to spare between finishing one book and beginning another gives me the same amount of anxiety that you would expect from walking on a tightrope in a skirt without underwear on a windy day. The thing that everyone tells you about losing a parent is true: you never get used to it, you simply distract yourself.

I’ve been missing my Dad terribly. I recently got a very big opportunity to teach a workshop on short stories abroad and from someone who hasn’t traveled a lot outside of family trips, I was thrilled initially. I began looking up bookshops in the area, trying to pick which stories I would discuss, what writing exercises I would give the students to work on. And then I started visualizing the logistics of the trip: booking a car, heading to the airport, checking in, and then I remembered the last time I flew alone back in 2011. My flight had been at 11:00 pm and my Dad picked me up from school and went with me to the airport; we ate Yellow Cab while waiting for them to announce that passengers could board the plane. I remember feeling bad for keeping him up past 9:00 pm (older people can’t stay up very late, or they shouldn’t), but when I told him I would be okay if he felt sleepy, he gave me the look that I think is the signature look he gave everyone: the that’s out of the question look, the you don’t even have to ask look, the don’t even me with your politeness look. When I got back five days later, my Dad was at the gate waiting for me in his pajamas and jacket. We ate at Jollibee. The thing about being the youngest in a family like mine where the age gaps are pretty far apart (my eldest sister is 14 years older than me, my youngest brother is 7 years older than me) is that everyone is already themselves when you are in your formative years so you tend to shape yourself around them. I was 17 when my Dad first had to be rushed to the hospital because he was suddenly shaking and feverish and we found out that he needed bypass surgery. Throughout the years, I suppose, I have learned to mold the things I want to do with my life around taking care of my Dad or at least being near enough to look after him if there’s an emergency. I had wanted to become a Doctor at one point, but it seemed to expensive an endeavor given my Dad’s medical history. I’d gotten an opportunity to work for Nikon but it was all the way at the tip of QC which kisses NLEX and I didn’t want to be that far from my Dad. I was delayed a total of around 2 years from graduating in college because my Dad had a stroke nearly yearly since 2009 and I’d skip school for days to stay at the hospital with him. When I got my first salary at my current job, we ate Omakase for lunch because my Dad loved Japanese food. When I applied for my HMO plan, I listed my Mom as a dependent (my Dad was too old to insure) so that whatever medical costs she had could be shouldered and the remaining funds could be used for my Dad.And I must say, as a disclaimer, it isn’t even that I am a particularly patient or selfless person, it’s only that my Dad was such an easy person to love.

In November, I was super excited when we installed our landline in the apartment because it meant I could call my Dad; I applied for a landline to be installed back at home in Alabang. They called to ask if they could come install the line a day after my Dad died. There are so many things about my life that I have built around my Dad being proud of me, helping give my Dad a better life, or at least make him happy in a life that wasn’t going to physically get better and it feels to me like I am reaping the rewards too late, like now I am being given the things I worked hard for but what are they for, now?

My family is a tough bunch. In a way, I feel like my Dad was the only one of us who was truly a person in the full sense of the word. The rest of us are more ambitious, more hard-headed, sharper, all edges, self-centered. And it isn’t that we don’t love each other, but that expressing that love doesn’t come naturally to any of us. We are people who are used to being brought together, we are not the people who do the bringing. It comes out forced, awkward, there is always a sense of what now?

Last week, I got sick and had to be rushed to the ER. I initially had texted my Mom, but when she called, I knew she was busy. Through the phone, I could hear the buzzing of chatter from the conference she was at, hear the clatter of cutlery. I knew she would do the thing I admire most about her: do what needs to be done, but also that it would fill me with an endless feeling of having kept her from what more important things she’d had planned, from real business, from bringing home the bacon. It would be a point counted against me. Thinking about it later, as I sat in the waiting room, nauseated, the problem was not hesitation on my Mom’s side (she called almost immediately), but on mine. If my Dad were there, I would have called him in a heartbeat. Not to say he wouldn’t have had other things planned or that he wouldn’t have been irate, but that I would have known he would be able to take it.

I have only encountered that unquestionable quality once before: in books, in fiction. The story is always there, can be counted on, can take your hate if you hate it or your love if you love it. There are no answers, but there are ideas, there are scenarios. There are things you can agree with or disagree with. There are problems that somehow become solutions and even more problematic solutions. It is a clumsy surrogate, but reading is the only place where I feel like I can be a child again. It has become a stand-in. I read to write, read to get up in the morning, read to function, read to still be a person in a world that will kill people you fight so hard to keep alive.

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