On the Lapses of Vegetarians

I have just had a religious epiphany of sorts—the kind that can only happen when one hasn’t eaten pork in months and then one goes ahead and inhales half a kilo of unadulterated Cebu lechon in about a quarter of an hour. (I am lucky this way: I can pull off stunts like these and have minor mystical experiences whereas other people risk quadruple bypass surgeries.)

The religious epiphany consists of this:

(1) God created all things.

(2) He saw that they were good.

(3) Pigs are part of God’s creation.

(4) Pigs are therefore good.*

This is one of the things I love most about food: few essentials in life provide as quick and dependable an access to pure, pedestrian pleasure. Hence, to call a particular dish “comfort food” strikes me as particularly redundant. Food is massively comforting: the distinctions lie in the degree of consolation provided—whether spartan or indulgent. And because our survival depends on its regular consumption, we can therefore count on being happy for at least two to three times a day.

And this is about as much as I can say for the moment, because luck notwithstanding, digesting porcine amounts of, well, pork with a system that’s gotten accustomed to the diet of a delicate panda (assuming delicate pandas occasionally indulge in prodigious amounts of Japanese and Italian) does have consequences—even if they fall far short of a quadruple bypass surgery. To wit, they include:

(1) Lethargy.

(2) Lethargy.

(3) Lethargy.

So I’m going to make this post shorter than usual, because right now, I have an incredible urge to lie down for just a wee bit and . . . (yawn) . . . dream of succulent little pigs rolling in vats of seasoned vinegar before happily immolating themselves in roasting fires.

Yummmmm . . .

* Pigs are especially good when raised and roasted in Cebu—which means that lechon is a prime example of how human beings can enhance and extend the perfection of creation.


On the Necessity of Distance

Perspective belongs to that rather narrow class of things that are peculiarly difficult to obtain in relative isolation. The mind is a capacious thing—yet its horizons can be strangely confining. The paradox isn’t all that difficult to unravel: the vastness of our mental universe is saturated by shards and fragments of ourselves. Everywhere we turn we encounter only our reflections—hardly surprising then that we can barely view things in the proper proportion.

All it takes (and it occasionally takes all we have) to gain perspective is to step out (or be jolted out) of the stifling snares of our minds. And this is perhaps one of the greatest functions of art, whether in literature or film or music or dance. To behold art (to read it, view it, hear it, feel it) is to be rescued from the distorting provincialism of our consciousness, with its petty, time-bound and self-same concerns. It doesn’t matter if it’s high art or low art—what’s essential is that it triggers that moment of transport (moments that eclipse eternity) where for an instant (or an eon) one gets a glimpse as of distant things.* There is distance, and with it: lucidity, clarity, detachment, and ultimately, forgiveness.

(There is the danger of too much perspective, however, which is the temptation to nihilism. Viewed from a far enough distance, across the vast stretches of millennia, all of history—all of the triumphs and tragedies, the countless ones untold—can be summed up as an aberrant and minuscule blip. This is what constitutes the immensity of God’s majesty: that His response to an overwhelming and devastating perspective is not indifference but love.)

Where else can we turn to for perspective besides art? There’s that other usual suspect, the very opposite of artifice and also its frequent source of inspiration: nature. Anyone who has ever properly viewed a tree cannot walk away from the experience without feeling absolved, without feeling, somehow, that life can’t be such a terrible thing if such a thing exists in it. There is harmony in the world (for what is perspective, if not the ability to discover harmony?) and all is, literally, as it should be.

* There is a poem by Czeslaw Milosz entitled Love that opens like this: Love means to learn to look at yourself / The way one looks at distant things / For you are only one thing among many. / And whoever sees that way heals his heart, / Without knowing it, from various ills . . . If this isn’t about perspective, I don’t know what is.

On the Pleasures of Barbery

An unexpected and recent joy: the rediscovery of the art of reading. One of the books on my bedtime shelf, the first fictional one I’ve read in a very, very long time: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Neither difficult nor easy; occasionally stilted; often pedantic. Worth reading in any case because there are few pretensions to a plot, just the almost hypnotic, almost indulgent unfolding of character, very similar to a Hayao Miyazaki film, and of course, lines like the following that enunciate a familiar yet almost forgotten truth:

. . . This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this—ridiculous journal of an aging concierge—if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually becomes their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me (from the chapter on Ryabinin, page 123) . . .

So many ways of articulating the truth, yet so few that command the instantaneity of recognition: phrases like “involuntary excellence,” “eluded my will,” “appear in spite of me,” and “painless birth.” Who can possibly fail to recognize those rare moments of grace when we live straight to the point, with neither the judgment of thought nor the interference of will, and not nod in assent with wistfulness and nostalgia?

On the Normalcy of Abnormalcy

My life should normalize at some point.

The torrential rains have finally abated, the birthday celebration(s) have finally ended, and the email flurries have finally stopped.

In short, an entire week of often frantic and occasionally furtive activity has finally concluded—and it looks like an entire month of it is coming up.

I knew 2011 would be a big year for me (just turning thirty would have been a milestone enough)—I just didn’t anticipate how “externally” eventful it would be (for lack of a better word). For better or for worse, I’ve lived a mostly quiet life with the majority of the turning points being internal events: minor epiphanies, major heresies, the wholesale slaughter of sacred cows (often accompanied by the wholesale consumption of profane pigs). I’m not used to living a . . . happening life. Sensory rushes overwhelm me, which is why I abstain from television, radio, print and Internet media consumption (in general), why I don’t maintain much of a social life (in particular), and why I cling to the pedestrian anchors of everyday ritual. In short, I appear to have been designed for the quiet English countryside (preferably the Cotswolds), only I was born in an entirely inappropriate era and milieu.

I’ve managed well enough for the last three decades where, apart from a disruptive quarter or two, things have jostled along at a fairly staid and predictable pace. I’ve made a few sudden and (seemingly) startling changes, but they’ve all fallen well within the established boundaries of character and normalcy has always quickly resumed.

That hasn’t been the case since I turned twenty-nine, and especially since the onset of 2011. Every month has been a roller coaster and it’s only gotten loopier as the year has progressed. June’s been particularly hectic (as evidenced by my erratic posting patterns) and I’m facing the somewhat bleak prospect of an even busier July.

Hopefully, things will finally settle down (somewhat) once I’ve passed the dreaded threshold in August. Otherwise, I’ll turn thirty feeling like I’m all of forty.


On the Rhythms of Melancholy

For the last few days, I have been a SAD sufferer.

The capitals, and the adjective they spell out, are not a moronically rendered attempt at melodrama. SAD, in this case, stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder:  a form of depression triggered by a deficiency of natural sunlight and also characterized by spectacularly helpful symptoms such as intense carbohydrate cravings. What this means, admittedly, is that my initial statement may be construed as an intelligent attempt at melodrama given that we live in a patently tropical country blessed with patently abundant amounts of sunlight.

Be that as it may, we do also live in an era characterized by aberrant weather patterns, and the monsoon rains that typically batter the Philippines in June have just been a tad more persistent than usual—with the result that I haven’t seen the sun for days—which has resulted, in turn, in an uncharacteristically somnolent depression.

(I say uncharacteristic, because I’m normally quite intense about things, including depression. This means that when I’m sad, I’m ferociously sad—with thunderbolts, rainclouds, lightning strikes, cello music, the works. Everything runs on steroids with me. It’s frankly rather exhausting.)

In any case, the past few days have felt like living in watercolor (soft, pale, runny and subdued) sans the dreamy and romantic undertones. I’ve just felt . . . massively dull and relentlessly melancholic. The only reason I’ve gotten up in the mornings is, as a friend once told me drily, I “hadn’t died the night before.”

All of which simply proves that, attempts at showcasing my intelligence notwithstanding, I’m an atavistic creature (at bottom) whose rhythms and ruminations are governed by sunrises and sunsets. Ultimately, the gift of intelligence lies not in transcending our animality, but in having a very good laugh about it—except maybe on those rare instances when our very animality makes us very SAD indeed.

On the Radiance of Joy

(PHILIPPINES, Quezon City) Abbey's birthday sparklers. (Photo taken by the author.)

Abbey turned thirty-three today and, to mark the occasion, we held a series of parties that began the previous night and finally culminated just this evening. This was in stark contrast to the previous year, which she’d chosen to celebrate with uncharacteristic sobriety and whose solemnity I’d interrupted by arriving at her doorstep (almost unannounced) with a bottle of wine. As if to make up for that aberrant lapse in festivity, she decided to celebrate her thirty-third birthday at the house la fiesta style—in installments.

That we ended up having a string of parties was inevitable given that the size of our house is inversely proportional to the number of her friends—the logistical difficulties were reduced by the mere fact that the majority of her friends reside abroad. That didn’t stop said friends from making their presences felt, however: both our inboxes were stuffed with messages from all over the world in at least three different languages.

And it’s typical of Abbey to inspire such devotion. Being around her frequently makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause why—I usually think of at least a dozen different things—but one reason that comes to mind with particular force (at least for me) is how effortlessly happy she makes me. It dissatisfies her no end that happiness should have such a hazy pedigree (even if she herself should be the origin); she always asks what she does, in particular, that makes me happy (a question that makes me wax philosophical: What does a tree do to make one happy? Absolutely nothing, except just be.).

And it’s a rare gift: rare only because most of us outgrow it. It’s our birthright to radiate joy, to be epicenters of bliss, and we do it naturally when we are very young (and unfortunately only when we are very young). Abbey has continued to do it for thirty years longer than the average person—and that’s just one reason (among countless others) for me (and countless others) to celebrate.

So happy, happy birthday Abs. Here’s to thirty-three years of living the prayer lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.

On the Pleasures of Oliver (Part 4)

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.