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


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