Coffee & Flowers: Make It Better

Nostalgic trike ride through Tropical Avenue in the village where I went to high school.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the concept of family a lot—and how everything that we do is ultimately influenced by what happens to us when we’re young. In that respect, I think that Freud was most definitely correct. While it is true that we continue to develop throughout our lives, I feel like the core of our lives are determined very early on: the way we think, our knee-jerk reactions, the way we feel about most things and about ourselves. I have a lot of friends who go lots of different ways with regard to self-esteem: some who are very confident despite not necessarily possessing “conventional” beauty attributes, some who are extremely beautiful in the most “objective” sense but have absolutely no confidence in their ability to be attractive and some who are in-between and in most instances I find that these things have a lot to do with the way that they were brought up or their experiences as young children.

I remember my mom telling me that she always felt ugly as a child—or always the ugliest, as compared to my aunts (they’re 5 girls total). My eldest aunt was the conventional beauty (especially in the 50s/60s sense) with very pale-rosy skin and sharp features, a beauty by all means; my mom is the second child and is pretty but is morena, with brown skin and wavy hair; after her came my aunts who are twins, both very pretty as well—plus the twin thing in itself was enough to gain them a lot of popularity in their small town; my next aunt is much younger than my mom so growing up, she wasn’t there for a lot of the goings-on in the household (they’re more than 10 years apart). Moreover, my aunts really liked cooking and playing with dolls and roller skating whereas my mom liked to climb trees, ride in push carts for pigs in the market, race around the neighborhood with the boys. Most of her stories are about running away—to swim in the river, to go on guava-gathering excursions, to be anywhere but home.

My mom in the 70s, smiling at something.

She always says that she only realized she was pretty when she was in college and was in an environment away from her sisters—more so when she went to study abroad and realized that other people could find her beautiful despite the fact that she didn’t look as pretty as her sisters. It’s that last part that always gives my mom away: sometimes she tells me this story and says it so forcefully and with so much conviction that I just can’t bring myself to believe that she believes what she is saying, like if you innately believed something you wouldn’t have to work so hard to convince anyone of your belief.  And I see it during reunions too—in the way her reactions are slightly delayed, the repetition of something someone else has just said, the automated response, the fumbling for the right thing to say—that part of her will always be that kid who felt like the odd-one-out, misplaced, a spectator.

Fast forward, a bit: my niece Presley is 3 years old. She is a ball of energy—she dances, sings, acts out bits from movies, tells us what to do, makes us put on mini plays, coerces me into swimming in an inflatable pool, likes taking photos on her mom’s iPhone. When she was a baby, she had an infection in her tummy which made it difficult for her to eat: nowadays, nothing escapes her—cupcakes, spaghetti, noodles, dumplings, bread, burgers. I feel like that experience with deprivation as a 1-month-old baby fuelled her drive to get things done her way; she is almost literally hungry for life. There is something about the way that she carries herself that assures me that she knows who she is. Presley is only ever daunted by one thing: the presence of her mom. My sister-in-law, Ate Audrey always reminds me of fire. She has a very strong personality and is extremely charismatic and extroverted in a way that always takes me aback whenever I see it. When Presley was born, Ate Audrey took a few months of to take care of her. They were inseparable for those few months and it was very difficult for Presley once her mom started working. In her presence, Presley becomes a baby again: she wants to be fed, to be held, to be treated not like a “big girl”. It’s incredible to me that even at so young an age you can already observe this kind of retreat or “going-back” in the presence of certain stimuli.

In the same way that my mother becomes an 11-year-old tomboy running through the streets of the Tarlac market around her sisters, when Presley is in the presence of her mother she becomes a newborn again.

I feel like we all go through these bouts of going-back, of suddenly becoming people we’d forgotten we once were and that it happens the most around family because that is the stimuli we were surrounded by before we’d “found” ourselves, before we’d decided to “become better” or before we “discovered our true potential”. Family is the starting point, the thing from which we decide to make things better—the benchmark for success, the barometer for failure.

My dad (left most) with his cousin, mom (my grandma) and brother (my uncle, right most).

As we grow up, I think the range for stimuli to regress toward increases: there are more memories, more cues, more things we encounter in everyday that turn us against ourselves. And eventually, when we’re really old it comes to a certain point where we’re no longer able to get any further than the memories that’ve built up.

Rewind, a little: I remember my grandmother a few years before she died, sitting in our car as we drove through Pampanga. We stopped at the church where she got married. It used to be one of the highest churches in all of Pampanga but when the volcano exploded and the lahar came raining in, it was buried underground. They were only able to save the top most tower—even now, it stands a good number of feet above the average person. I remember the sadness on her lined face as she was looking at that place that was no longer the place she remembered. She kept looking for Father Bituin, the priest who had them married. But he, along with the rest of the church, was gone. She nods and says of course—that’s only logical. She was 86.

This morning, I was chatting with my friend Raine about how certain things that happen to you affect you by lacing themselves into your emotional and cognitive functions so that before you know it, you are reacting to something the way you have tried so hard not to. I told her about having an extremely hard time trusting myself and trusting men who claim to want to be my friends—not because of any concrete gender-bias but because of stimuli that seems to recur and my inability to shun that is limited. For example, around half a decade ago (haha), I became especially fond of someone who was then my main source for useful information: it was great to feel that kind of enthusiasm at having met someone from whom you can learn things that are interesting. There were cues: informative letters, sureness, a kind of resolve toward looking for answers or furthering inquiry. Last year, I came upon the acquaintance of someone with a similar enthusiasm for knowledge; this first thing I felt was a severe, crippling anxiety. That combined with the desire to know this person was something I would never wish upon anyone. It is partial classical conditioning, partial operant conditioning: like the same responses dealt by older encounters are triggered despite the absence of that exact stimuli and this is done to decrease the occurrence of a certain behavior.

On one hand, I think that this is reasonable—isn’t it madness to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results? Some of the most dysfunctional people I know are like this: they play the same charade over and over again, wondering why this keeps happening or why they aren’t able to get themselves out of a certain rut. I don’t think I’m wrong in this respect: there are always things that cause behavior, things that propel us forward or hold us back.

And yet the thing of which I am most afraid is having to look back years from now and feeling like I failed to give people the benefit of the doubt. There are always extraneous variables: that big, inescapable one is called life. All we can do is to try and make it better.

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