On the Guilt of Survivors

(TACLOBAN City) Yep, that's me right on top of the water buffalo next to my brother. (Photo taken by the author's father.)

(TACLOBAN City) Yep, that’s me right on top of the water buffalo next to my brother Fred. Lainey’s settled on the horn and Mum’s the one standing. Dad, as always, took the shot.

Obviously, I’ve got a bit of time on my hands again.

This return to the surface has been marred by reports of Yolanda-wrought desolation sent by my parents from Cebu. Mum is from Tacloban and Dad grew up in Dulag. The Waray of Leyte was the first native language my siblings and I learned to understand.

My parents have stayed mostly silent, but close friends of theirs have died. My paternal grandfather’s house in Dulag (the house my family lived in for many, many summers) lost its roof and a wall—just weeks after my paternal grandmother’s hometown of Maribojoc was leveled by the earthquake that hit Bohol.

You come up from under the surface only to find that the crust of the earth has shifted, that water has rent the land, that the cares that keep you perpetually submerged have been rendered buoyant by an infinitely weightier tragedy and grief.

(And then you count the days until your mother’s and father’s brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews surface one by one…)

There is guilt in living, and in continuing to live, and in continuing to have the preoccupations of life. How do you welcome death to your doorstep? How do you befriend it without being seduced, without being enthralled, without being turned to stone? How do you bear the sure knowledge of your demise without being bowed, without being cowed, without being crushed by it? How do you carry on with the hundreds of middling, everyday, pedestrian concerns without feeling the need to apologize to the ones who’ve gone ahead?

I don’t know. There’s life and there’s death; there’s relief and there’s regret. We live (and we die) in the midst of paradoxes that preclude resolution and contradictions that refuse reconciliation. We do the best we can.

May it be enough.

This is for my godfather who lost his wife and for my father whose continued existence I—and many, many others—celebrate today. Happy happy birthday, Dad. I love you!


On the Reluctance to Travel

(GO Somewhere) Does here qualify?

(GO Somewhere) Does here qualify?

I fly out to Singapore next week.

It is, quite possibly, the first time in my life that I’ve ever dreaded traveling—that I’ve ever dreaded leaving home.

And this is Singapore, for crying out loud, a city-state that I did once call home.

But it can’t be helped. I have a child now—the studio—and I…just don’t want to go.

The irony is that I’m leaving for this particular child’s sake. (If this is the heart-wrenching dilemma that overseas contract workers constantly face, my sympathy for them grows a hundred-fold.) You leave for the sake of what you love, yet you can’t bear to leave because of what you love.

If there’s any consolation, it’s that no compulsion remains to explore Singapore’s attractions (though new ones have sprouted since my permanent resident status expired). This means that apart from the hours I need to spend in my Yin Yoga teacher training, I can literally hole up in my friends’ apartment.

Because, yes, I really don’t want to go around the city either. Much of this has to do with the fact that Singapore represents a life and a lifestyle that I chose to leave—but which nevertheless exercise an irresistible allure. (If this is the life-long temptation that people with addictions perpetually battle, my compassion for them expands a hundred-fold.)

The massive amount of resistance this trip is generating is a perfect indication that the time is right for me to go.


On the Brokenness of Teeth

(BROKEN Teeth) Funny what anger can do. (Image from Dave McKean's cover illustration of David Almond's The Savage.)

(BROKEN Teeth) Funny what anger can do. (Image from Dave McKean’s cover illustration of David Almond’s The Savage.)

Last week, after poking around my mouth with a periodontal probe, my dentist told me:

You’ve fractured four teeth.

She looked at me accusingly.

They weren’t fractured the last time I saw you.

Four fractures???

Uh-huh, she told me. Have you been eating a lot of meat or nuts lately?

I shook my head in denial and bewilderment. Both meat and nuts are endangered species in my diet.

Well then, she concluded. You’re probably grinding your teeth in your sleep—and hard enough too to cause the teeth to break.

That’s life for you. You take one step forward above ground—and slide two steps backward below ground. My conscious mind is so impermeable that my unconscious mind has resorted to inscribing messages in my mouth. I don’t remember raging in my recent dreams—but then I never recall my dreams in any case. Now my dreams leave fossils through the fissures in my teeth.


It’s embarrassing, of course, because I always tell my yoga students to “unclench their jaws.” The body has fault lines: seams along which tension mounts and eventually releases. Sometimes the tremors happen quietly; sometimes they explode in seismic shifts. You can anticipate eruptions through the rigidities of jaws and shoulders and foreheads and necks.

But I’m a yoga teacher. My body has been reprogrammed to manifest pliancy and malleability. So even when I’m tense, an occupational imperative will command my shoulders to relax and my forehead to uncrease. (So yes, even in this domain, a tyranny of the body still exists.)

Little wonder then that my anger waits for the quiescence of sleep. (So that yes, even in this domain, the defiance of the body still persists.)

In this clash of tyrannies, the body always wins.


I still don’t know what’s triggering the grinding. I’m still not sure what’s caused this massive upwelling of underground resentment. My teeth, however, won’t survive a protracted investigation. So even if it’s uncomfortable—and more importantly, even if it’s ugly—I’ve taken to wearing a mouth guard when I sleep just to prevent further erosion of my already-worn enamel.

Hopefully, just hopefully, the hostilities end soon.

On Messages in Bottles

(BOTTLED Message) Just one among many.

(BOTTLED Message) Just one among many.

It’s gotten quiet all around.

I’ve gone quiet.

The people whose blogs I read have gone quiet.

None of us are still waters, but we’ve all gone deep, all gone below the surface, all been dragged by the undercurrents of our lives.

Every day of this silence is like a bead on an unwanted mala.

I didn’t choose the silence this time. So, so many things have happened that deserve to be memorialized by ink on paper (or words on a screen).

The currents drag me and I’m forever reaching up towards the surface. (This is what it means to be a writer: light, clarity, transparency and air belong to the realm above the waters; everyday life belongs to this dark, subaqueous and suffocating world, with its murky depths and alien creatures.)

But part of me is home in this underwater domain as well. (Stay too long and your lungs turn to gills. You tread and you tread until you forget the feel of the ground underneath your feet. What ground? What feet…?)

I’m home yet I yearn for home. It’s quiet all around except for the din in my head. (Put my skull next to your ear and you’ll hear a distant roar like the sound of the ocean’s waves.)

I pause just long enough so I don’t forget—don’t forget the terran world of light, clarity, transparency and air. This is me putting a message in a bottle.

Someday, hopefully soon, I’ll follow it to the surface.

On the Utility of Miracles

(CUSHY Ride) One can get used to this.

(CUSHY Ride) One can get used to this.

The year’s drawing to a close and it’s All Saints Day. It’s a fitting time to survey the corpses of broken promises and unfulfilled hopes.

This year’s catalogue isn’t all that bad. We get better at forecasting the older we get: the more modest our aspirations, the less bitter our regret.

But let me put aside the tallying for now. The year still has two months left; some of the corpses may have life in them yet.


For the first time in perhaps three years, my lower back is virtually pain-free. Some absences are more acute than presence. I still marvel at the fact that I can sneeze these days without the attendant spasm.

And, no, this didn’t even make it to my list of modest aspirations. The most I was hoping for was the maintenance of the status quo.

Does an unexpected minor miracle compensate for a dozen unmet expectations and thwarted ambitions?

Probably not. But then again, no one forecasts miracles. A bonus doesn’t make up for a loss, but it makes their endurance infinitely easier.


Another bonus (this one not as solemn): I’ve had a gold BMW 3 Series sedan at my disposal for the last two weeks. Having a BMW has never even been on my list of extravagant aspirations (gold-colored or otherwise).  This model is old, with over 120,000 kilometers on the odometer, but its leather-covered seats contour themselves nicely to my now pain-free lower back.

It goes from 0 to 80 km/h with worrisome alacrity. Whenever the acceleration happens, I think to myself: what do people do with this much speed gained at so little effort?

(And then I catch myself and have another thought: what do I gain from questioning every miracle—extravagant or otherwise?)

That’s when I settle my pain-free lower back more firmly into the soft leather cushions.


The year’s drawing to a close. My back’s remained steadily pain-free and J. hasn’t asked for his BMW back yet.

Let’s see what the next two months have in store.