Monday, September 29, 2008

Fight the fire that's in your hand

A few months ago, when it seemed like everyone around me was getting their congratulatory Palanca letters, I went back to my dark corner and banged away at my laptop, trying to shoo away the hurt and, yes, the outrage of missing out on all the excitement. (Call me childish, fuck you, haha.) Beside the sincere happiness for friends, and yes, pride (in Marie's case, oh god, you make me want to cry, I love you, I am unexplainably proud of you, sweetie!), there was resignation, yes, that I should yet again be content with living vicariously, and yes, damn it, the confirmation of the goddamned fact that the world doesn't owe me anything, none at all. And so I banged away, banged away at the laptop, came up with a story, then another, coming up for air to drink with friends, to get some hugs and awkwardly given pep talks.

But what nagged me, damn it, what was stuck in my goddamned craw was my mother. I wanted to give her something tangible, damn it, something that could make her incredibly proud of me, more proud of me than she'd ever been. I wanted to give her the honor of walking on Palanca-winner-dust-spattered carpets of some hotel, in shoes we'd bought specifically for the occasion. I wanted to go up on a stage (or whatever it is) and grin at her while I hold a medal, and the, hehe, the check. I wanted to give her a hug, what medal there was between our sternums (it's her fault I'm flat-chested), cool at first, then warming to the skin beneath our dresses. I wanted to tell her, "Mom, I won a Palanca. Apir!" But I didn't. And I couldn't do all that, not this year, no.

I sent her a message, a couple of days after all the winners of the category I'd joined in had surfaced: "Mom, I wish I could tell you that I won a Palanca, and that it was for you. But I didn't. Sorry."

And she replied with, "Oh love, that doesn't matter, and yes, this is cliched, but there's always next year. You will always make me proud, Palancas don't matter, not really. Know what? Just give me your diploma, and I'll be the happiest mother in the world."

And I cried, and I couldn't send her a reply, because I was too preoccupied, bawling with my face buried in the nearest welcoming chest, which smelled of wood chips, soap, High Endurance, a good night's sleep, a hell of a good morning, and that moment when you sit down with the clothes that have dried on the clothesline and you just need to smooth the creases with your chafed palms.

"What's wrong?" he asked, and I showed him my phone, and he kissed the top of my head, and he said, "Awww." And then I punched him on the stomach, and he laughed, and I knew exactly what he meant.

The first time a certain award-winning, highly esteemed poet (buwahaha) made me cry (yes, this wasn't a one-time thing), he made a shot at my mother. This was at the heels of him saying my mother was hot. (Men are weird that way.) And then a few seconds later, he said, in not so many words, and I do not quote (so italics na lang): Your mother, she is bad, yes.

See, I had launched into the inner workings of my family, of how my brother and I sneak out at the dead of the night to share some Lethal Mentoses, of how my mother always let us go our own ways, make our own choices, but never letting us forget that the family was always there for us. All that mushy stuff that I couldn't really verbalize, and so I just gave examples. Poor ones, apparently, because then Mr. Poet said something, implying my mother was a bad mother, and before I could reach for the nearest beer bottle and rid the world of a great literary man-dude, the glare I'd directed at him had turned wobbly, and before I knew it, I was trying to stoically stare at my shoes instead, and damn it, I was crying. Gah, guerilla-girl tactics, crying, yech. Conscience-ridden me, fuck it, decided I'd have more satisfaction fantasizing his death by molasses and fire ants, rather than me doing it myself with any blunt object, or my elbow (which is also considered a blunt object anyway).

Mr. Poet apologized, and I think he knew he should never tread on that plane again, because I may have cried that one time, but the next time it should ever happen, I will draw blood. Promise. Reminds me of the time when my principal kept hinting that I was the spawn of damned people, and my head was abuzz with, One word about my mother, you hag, and your face will blend in to that blackboard behind you not too nicely.

Mr. Poet said, "Oh, don't cry na, Sasha, sorry. I said your mom was hot naman, di ba?" Orayt.

My mother wrote me a letter a year ago, for an Ethical Will project for a Nonfiction seminar. And this is what I wrote for that project, or tried to write (yes, my nonfiction sucks ass):

The night before this paper was due, my mother sent me a text message: “I have emailed the values. Please insert where you see fit – Never lose your sense of humor and your belief in the wonders of one-liners. Approach life with passion not timidly and safely. Do not be afraid to get hurt but be afraid if it does not make you stronger.”

Reading the message aglow on my screen, I was struck with some sort of trepidation. My mother has never been the sort of person to give out Hallmark cards during birthdays. She’s never been the type of mother who baked cookies on weekends or demanded hugs and kisses as she came home from work. My mother is an abysmal cook. Maybe because it’s inevitable that she be compared to my father, who does all the cooking, and with good food, at that. Over the years, my mother’s repertoire has changed little: sushi, salsa, chili, tacos, penne with seafood sauce and molo. The one time she baked some brownies for us, they came out rock-hard and she was forever banned from approaching the oven by a two-meter radius – banned by me.

She’d not the type of mother who would ask you aside and talk to you about your life, begging for some tidbits about boys, school, boys and more boys. She doesn’t ask, “How are you feeling, dear?” as she tucks a wayward curl behind my ear. My mother asks, “How’s school?” And I would mumble the token, “Okay naman,” all the while, not-so-surreptitiously making a beeline for the exit. When given a more honest answer like, “I’m miserable. I hate school,” she asks, “Why? What’s wrong?” and we’d get to the bottom of it, but not without making some U-turns and detours here and there, talking about the latest The Simpsons episode, or some favorite wrestler, fencing all the while with one-liners from TV, mostly cartoons. An inquiry about my location would be a paraphrase from Dexter’s Laboratory, complete with mangled accents:

“Sasha, where are you?”

“Right here.”

“Where here?”

“Here here.”

“I don’t see you . . .”

With the last line being said together: “Uh-oh, I think Dee Dee’s become the caaar!”

Completely inane, as you can see.

The mushy words that linger between us like secret farts have all been uttered under duress, complete with squirming and really awkward laughter. Happy Birthday? Hug. Happy New Year? Hug. Merry Christmas? A hug, plus a kiss if she gave me something really pretty.

My mother shows her love in a markedly different way from all the “normal” mothers out there. (Yes, all of us, including her, admit that my mom is abnormal and weird.) She does it matter-of-factly and in this way, she manages to surprise me. Like before college, she asked me if I wanted to be a writer. When I said yes, she asked me to shift into this course. When I thought about applying for a writers’ workshop, she told me to go through with it, only if I wanted to. I did, and she let me. Of course, she listened, patiently, as I told her of my irrational fear of flying – mainly because I haven’t done it before. She listened and told me, “Come on,” with her signature smirk.

But I know that I can tell her anything because I know I will be heard as an adult. And she has a way of putting things into perspective for me. When I lost a phone, I fretted and cried and she said, “It’s only a phone. Sayang, sure, but we love you more than that.” And she was hugging me. When I sunk into episodes of depression, she’d call me everyday, saying as little as possible, and our small talk slowly pulled me out of my funks.

No, my mother is not the conventional mother of fragrant kitchens and spotless aprons. My mother is the mother who laughs at cartoons with us, the one who goes with me to spelunk for books in second-hand bookstores, the one who squirms at a hug, the one who occasionally slips and calls us “love” once in a while.

The following is a letter from her to me. Reading it at such an opportune time once again put things in perspective for me. These tidbits from my mother are things I am grateful to receive, and something that I hope I will carry with me, as Hallmark as that may sound.


Dear Daughter,

In terms of material wealth, there is not much, if none at all that your father and I can bequeath to you. It saddens me personally as I have made it my vow that my children will never experience how it feels not to have money in the pocket, to have to ask a parent and have her give you a litany of how hard life is, that money does not grow on trees, blah, blah and more blah. I have made my needs of the least priority if my children have urgent needs of their own. Perhaps this has made me a push-over. This is of no consequence, however, as long as they will know the feeling of belonging. My life is governed by past rejections that my perspective has been warped by what not to do. The values that I wanted to impart to my children are based on everything that is opposite to my personal experiences and my hurts yet with the attempt to intersperse it with the sense of right and wrong. My upbringing was one that is sheltered because of my mother who for selfish reasons did not allow me to go out anywhere not even for a Girl Scout jamboree. With you and your brothers, I took the other route and allowed you to mingle with your peers, to join activities and thus expose you to different environments, opportunities, scenarios, judgments which I am hoping will translate to future intelligent decisions based on actual knowledge and experience rather than vicarious learning.

Along the way, I try to guide by example hoping that my actions will be passed on and lived by my daughter and sons. I am aiming for financial stability and independence. To achieve this, it should be done through hard work and self-reliance. Each task is important on its own and there is no job too small or too big that it cannot be done the best possible way it can be done. Everyone should be treated with fairness and respect. Prejudice or bias does not have a place in this family. Always carry with you a sense of honor. Hold yourself liable to your commitments and meet them whenever possible and always try to make everything possible. Let no one belittle you not even yourself. Brand and luxury is not a priority. Comfort is. Make this your mantra – form and substance, substance and form. Do not approach anything armed with only one. Always take them together. Set your immediate objectives, however selfish they may be. However, this should only be at the start. Your objectives must always end with plans to pay forward, to give back what you have been blessed with through hard work. Stay practical. Never let your heart rule your mind. Focus on your objectives. Keep your eyes on the prize and do not deviate. There is always the right time and place. Analyze all actions with pros and cons. There is no fate. There is no destiny. Your future is set by the choices that you make. Do not over analyze either that you will never act. Your first instinct is usually always right. Be forthright. Do not hide behind lies and half-lies and as the UP people say, the truth will set you free. Face up to your decisions. Do not fret and try to anticipate other people’s reactions and, more importantly, do not dwell on their reactions. However, if you decide on something, you should be able to prove yourself right.

Your father cannot stress enough the importance of family. Between him and me, he is the one who has heart. He’s Homer. I am no Marge, sadly. What I am is a mother who wants to see all her children happy, content, leading useful and productive lives and who watches out for each other. The success of one is the success of the other. I am not talking of dole-outs. I am talking of time and effort and follow through to make each one’s life meaningful. All I can give right now is unconditional love, free of judgment but filled with action plans and guidance. And hugs. Yes, really.

I love you, Elisha. I say that with implicit fact rather than sweet sentimentality. Chill.

Mami (I am your)

I cry easily. A compliment, a spontaneous hug, an e-mail, that Globe commercial when there's a man in a wheelchair and there's a woman fussing over him and he sends her a text message and the woman looks up and smiles at him really soft-like. I cry easily, and even though I'll probably lynched by the gliterry literary world, I mean every tear when I mean every tear. Seeing my name in print, for example, or on a bulletin board along EDSA walk, those kinds of tears. And then my mother, who's caught me off-guard more times than I care to count.

I remember when my Pollyanna essay, Everybody Has a Story appeared in the Youngblood column and I called her while she was in the office, and when she came home, she had eight copies of the newspaper and a tub of strawberry ice cream, and she told me, laughing, how she'd knocked on the metal door of every closing sari-sari store just to get the copies. I remember, when I got accepted in Ateneo for AB European Studies, she told me to write a letter to the administration, asking to be shifted to BFA Creative Writing, because that's what I really want, wasn't it? And I remember, after a class with Sir Krip, when my short story The Return was discussed, and he'd told me during consultation, "I can't teach you anything else. You're a writer." And I called my mom, and we did some mutual giggling. I remember when that story got published in Free Press, and it was my mother I called first, and she kept saying Wow, and she kept saying, You're first short story published, in Free Press. Oh god, that's a big thing, right? and I remember how I stayed on the line as she Googled what Free Press was, and what it could mean. I remember that a year ago, in Calatagan, Martin sent me a text message, congratulating me on some good writerly news. And I ran to the nearest Internet shop (hard to do, in Calatagan, hello), and before I could think of the damage to my ridiculously unhealthy body, I ran to my mother, who was curled up in the bunk bed reading Byatt, and I said, "Mom. I got in. Dumaguete." I remember how she helped me pack, making a table of what I should be wearing for the day, and how we both forgot to pack some underwear, and so all my bras and panties were stuffed at what available nook and cranny there was. I remember her calling me up right after my first story was discussed, and I told her everything they said, and then I called her after my second story was discussed, I remember this phone call happened while everyone was in a Dance Tribute, and I was weaving my way in and out of the lawn, trying to keep my voice low. I remember when I came back, and my eyes were glazed, and we were in a cafe in Quezon, and she ordered some coffee, and she said, "You want to talk about it?" And I said, "I can't." And she said, "Ew, I don't think I want to know then." I remember when another story was published, and she laughed, and said, "Good job, love." I remember when Sarge Lacuesta sent me a (suspicious-looking, haha) email, informing me that The Return was a finalist in this year's Free Press Awards, and I'd stared, dumbfounded, at the computer screen, and then it was my mother I first thought of, and I sent her a message (short on load), and she replied with, and I quote, "WOOHOO." And then she called me and squealed, and said, "WOOHOO" again. I remember sending manic messages to her during the ceremony, telling her I had to go to the bathroom real bad, screw everything, and her telling me to Calm down. Apparently, B. loses her hair when she's stressed, and you lose your bowels. And I remember I texted her, "Didn't get anything, save for a box of matches. I'm off to get drunk." And I remember she replied with, "Okay. But not too drunk. You've got class tomorrow." I remember when I saw my name on the Heights bulletin board, telling me I was a fellow, and I remember I told her first. I remember the morning of the workshop, and she sent me a message, "Have fun. Chin up when criticism goes your way. Don't let your head grow big with whatever praise they give you." And I remember coming down from Antipolo, having lunch with her, and we both didn't have to say anything. I remember when Marra Lanot of Graphic told me This Fleet of Shadows would be published soon, and I remember my mother telling me, "You never cease to amaze me." I remember when I got the Heights issue came out, and I told her I had two stories there, and she said, "Yay, love. You never cease to amaze me, kid." And I remember her telling me, after reading Quick, the Tomatoes, "You never cease to amaze me. Can you really smoke aphids out?" And I remember I cried because of that, but I replied that yes, you really can smoke aphids out. I remember, just last night, telling her, "Mom, oh my god, the story in Graphic is out! Page 42! And Sir Krip's column, buwahahaha!" And she replied with, "Ah, wonderful. Congratulations! Where can I get a copy?" And I remember, how, just this morning, I told her how a professor had told me, "This girl can write," over that overly dramatic story of mine about the Japanese Occupation, and I remember that I quoted a barf-able line to her, "I truly have nothing to live for. And that makes me the perfect candidate to die for anything at all," and I remember how my mother wrote me, "Simply amazes me how you meld seemingly disparate words and turn them into a story." And I remember how I just sat back, and just stared at the computer, and tried to telepathically hug my mother, trying not to cry, because I was in Mag:net then, and Sir Rock was beside me, and it didn't seem polite to cry while he was staring at a picture of Sisig-stuffed Sili.

I wanted to make this as short as a paragraph, but you know how things are.

From Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson: "You said, 'I Love You.' Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? 'I Love You' is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body."

Wala lang. Bzzzt.

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Blogger B said...

someday maybe my kids will write about me lovingly just like you did.
i cry all the time too.
hey - if you have itunes - make a search for the new yorker magazine's fiction podcast. it's free and it's a gem. - Bong

10:58 PM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Martin said...


(to you and mom.)


1:25 PM, September 30, 2008  

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