Thursday, January 29, 2009

Getting A Kiss (And Other Things) Right

When I was a college junior and beginning to seriously consider having my first boyfriend (yeah, yeah, I was a late bloomer, OK?), I consulted with my friend Jordan—who is also my harshest critic and one of my dearest, oldest friends. I was worried—no, I was beside myself with anxiety—about having just held hands with this guy that I liked before he even said anything definite about wanting to be a couple.

Oh. Em.Gee.

I wrote my friend saying I will never let that guy get near me again until he knew what he wanted and backed it up. Like a “real man”. In that letter, I detailed in righteous indignation (“How dare that confused man touch me!”) all my reasons for my decision.

In response, this is what that biyatch friend of mine said in a letter to me:

“So what if after HH he changes his mind? It’s not like he took your maidenhead, dammit! So what if he’s playing safe by not saying anything? Crucify him if you want. But does he have to marry you just to HOLD YOUR HAND?”

I thought, And why ever NOT???

For a good many years, my frame of mind was always, Why waste my time being with a guy (going out to dinner, watching a movie, hanging out and eating fish balls at one of the UP fish ball stands) if I can’t imagine marrying him? All my romantic decisions were hinged on the question of whether or not this was the guy I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. (Which actually explains why I had my first boyfriend at the marriageable age of 20. Ack. And why every romantic relationship I had been in felt like a marriage. Doube ack.)

I looked upon every little romantic gesture as a major step leading up to happily ever after. And so everything that I shared with someone in the name of romance, I also did in the higher name of forever-and-forever. Everything was BIG. INTENSE. OVERBLOWN. OA.

I tell you, I had sleepless nights over that hand-holding thing (“with someone who wasn’t even my boyfriend!”) as if I had surrendered my “virginity” to a complete stranger in the Sunken Garden or something.

If the safe, sweet little gesture of holding hands kept me up nights, you can just imagine what kissing did to me. Somehow, every kiss was invested with all my hopes and dreams and images of our shared genes (“Ooh, we’re going to have cute kids!”)

In the beginning of my last relationship, when I found myself replaying over and over in my head at a client presentation the kiss of the night before, with my throat suddenly as dry as the Sahara and my needing to get up for yet another glass of water and not hearing nor caring about what anyone in that room was saying because now I also pictured the little chapel on the hill (or the beach) and heard the vows (lines from a Pablo Neruda poem—but, of course) and saw the children and the preschool and the---waaaaahhhh!—I began thinking, Surely there must be another way—a saner, cooler, healthier way--of going about this.

For far too long, this almost insane reaction to a kiss has been the cause of my downfall. I just lose it. I forget that I had plans, that I actually have things to do with my life. Sometimes, I even forget my name. I don’t know, but my brain seems to short-circuit when I am in that early stage of a relationship where your lips are so busy making contact that if you didn’t come up for air you could actually die. So that no matter how impossible the situation or how potentially messy, I always think (in some kind of delirium, now that I think about it), Oh, it’s all going to work out. It’s all going to be perfect.

It’s not that I wished I’d rather be casual and flippant about things, especially with something as mysterious as a kiss—that is, when much of our physical responses to it are still a mystery to most of us--because I honestly don’t think that’s possible, even for the most cold-hearted play-yah. While I would never delude myself into thinking a kiss could actually be “wala lang,” I wished that it didn’t have to spell the meaning of life for me, that I didn’t come undone every time. I prayed (dear God!) that I could actually manage to share this form of physical expression without feeling that I folded up my heart, wrapped it with my soul and Fed-Exed the whole package to the other person. (Do you realize how expensive the minimum Fed Ex package costs?)

I just… wanted…to be able to bet on a little kiss without feeling that I put every. Friggin’. Thing. On the table.

That right there was my problem: I didn’t know how to make anything mean something without it having to mean everything.

Jordan laughed out loud at that line over the phone tonight. I said, Oh, that’s funny?

It is, he said, still laughing. Wow, it took you sixteen years to get that!

(Yes, he can be pretty smug, too. Especially now that he’s a Jesuit.)

My God, sixteen years. Sixteen years for me to get that I don’t have to marry the next guy whose company I really enjoy. Whose life story fascinates me. Whose corny/crazy jokes make me laugh. Sixteen years for me to get that even if all we share together is one season or one year or just one afternoon conversation—or yeah, OK, just one kiss--and never see nor speak to each other again, it is enough. It is neither less nor more than anything, not even my longest relationship. It just is. Whatever we imbue with attention and honesty and consideration is valid and precious and worthwhile, no matter how short or seemingly small it may be. People, relationships, events are fine, are perfectly valid and legitimate, just as they are. They need not be anything more—or less—than that. So I do not have to turn them into anything “more”.

Sixteen years for me to get that a moment need not lead to anything else, to anything “bigger” or “more important”. That this now, this time that I’m sitting at my desk tonight writing this is enough, is precious and grand in itself—even if I never post it or if no one else other than me gets to read it. It need not be anything other than what it is.

"Trying just to focus on the good...I'm tired of diving for the pearl," Glen Hansard of (the Irish band) The Frames sang in "Song for Someone". I've been playing the song over and over for the past year, as if by repeating the lines, I'd get it.

Focus on the good, focus on the good....I'm learning, Glen, I'm learning.

“Strive to be happy, my friend,” Jordan wrote toward the end of that letter, dated August,1993.

I called him tonight, yanked him out of his Jesuit duties (whatever those were), to tell him that I am happy. In the real, honest-to-goodness, can't-take-this-away-from-me-EVER kind of happy. Finally.

I would have kissed him, too, out of this sheer, sane, hard-fought yet surprisingly easy, no-drama happiness (sixteen years in the making!) if he were right there in person. But thank God (well, thank Jesus) he wasn’t because I might have started thinking, So what if he’s a Jesuit and that we’re not each other’s type? I’m sure it’s going to work out. It’s going to be perfect.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Good Fight

I got into a fight last week.

I took on an aunt for having mistreated the family driver. You see, our driver is one of the most non-threatening, delicate souls I’ve ever met. The sort of person Atticus Finch would call a mockingbird—a bird that just perches on a branch and sings, someone who wouldn’t know the first thing about harming another person. A very kind, shy man, our driver is usually able to shrug off or smile away brusqueness, bitchiness or meanness, especially from my mom’s angry-girl helper and high-strung sisters (my other aunts). But my aunt’s yelling over the phone to him and accusing him of things he did not do (all the way from Baguio, where my whole family and other relatives were vacationing) must have crossed the line of what was acceptable to this man’s dignity or sense of decency that he told me he was resigning before breaking down in tears. I had to ask him to please stop the car first and try to calm down instead of driving while wiping away his tears. He was so shaken he couldn’t even bring himself to repeat to me exactly what my aunt told him over the phone.

This is the aunt who has a difficult time keeping her maids and drivers. She tends to verbally abuse them until they feel their only recourse is to leave. (And that’s why she ends up borrowing my mom’s driver). This is a trait of hers that has always baffled me; she’s so thoughtful and generous with the family and with her friends, and she’s fun to be around—except for those times when she morphs into a monster and lashes out at people, particularly her employees. The things she says to them and how she says them makes my skin crawl. I don’t know how she is able to justify such acts to herself.

Whenever she does that, the people around her just try to change the subject or smile nervously or get up to use the restroom. (Angry blow-ups run on my mom’s side of the family.) I’ve always wanted to call her on this, except that I didn’t know how to do it or where to begin. I wasn’t sure if it was my place to speak to her about it. I had become aware early on in my childhood that the “adults” in the family didn’t take too well to being opposed, especially by the younger members—the hierarchy is well-defined, seemingly set in stone. If you’re a parent or an aunt (the uncles, especially on my father’s side, always seemed much cooler) or an older sibling, there is no way you can be wrong. To disagree with them was, as far as they were concerned, the height of disrespect. If you voice out your disagreement, you might as well have picked a fight. And in this family, nobody seemed to know how to fight without it turning ugly. I’ve gotten myself banged up and bruised quite a number of times for daring to question an existing “rule” or for saying “I don’t want you to yell at me again”. (And I have beaten up a younger sibling for daring to cross me. Yeah, we can be a violent bunch. But, thankfully, people seem to be maturing.) Which is probably why most of the people in my family try to avoid fights and any sort of confrontation at all costs. Even if it means looking the other way at certain injustices, pretending nothing’s wrong or should be corrected. Instead of speaking out, most of the people in my family choose to shut up “para wala nang gulo.”

For years, I’ve wanted to learn how to fight the good fight—the kind where you know you’re in the ring opposite someone in the same weight division and you honor the rules of fairness, where you know that you and other person are both elevating each other to a higher consciousness and sense of awareness by bringing out the best in each other rather than just tearing each other down, when you know that the urge to engage each other in this way comes from somewhere deeper than the ego.

Because I’ve had the good fortune of having really cool boyfriends, I’ve had practice in such good fights over the past fifteen years. They weren’t all good fights, of course—I mean, that’s difficult to pull off when you’re in your angsty 20’s—but we really tried to fight fair and decently as much as our maturity allowed, I could see that. When a fight comes from an honest desire to love better—from a desire to be a better human being--it always leaves one feeling noble, like a knight or a samurai. And I have felt both like a noble knight/samurai as well as a monstrous Grendl in past battles to know the vast difference between a good fight and a bad fight.

Last week’s encounter definitely fell under the knight/samurai category for me. I felt that a mockingbird had been the target of some indiscriminate hunter’s rifle and it naturally brought out the Atticus Finch in me—that part in us that feels compelled to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

I had apologized to our driver on behalf of my aunt, but I asked that she do the same herself when she came down from Baguio. I wanted to make sure she knew that her behavior was unacceptable to me and to him. When she balked at the prospect and was poised to get into an ugly argument, I told her I wouldn’t speak to her until she learned to treat people with respect. Of course, to my jittery non-confrontational mom, I had gone too far. That aunt of mine and I were really tight—we were more like buddies than aunt and niece. But I felt that I was doing it for all three of us—for her, for the driver and for me. I felt—and still strongly feel—that there is a standard of decency and respect we all should uphold. And that we should all hold ourselves and one another accountable. I believe that the more we love someone, the more we should hold them to higher standards. In other words, we shouldn’t allow people—especially those we love--to be assholes. Even if they’ll hate our guts for it.

I saw what her action did to him—and it was waaay below his and my standards. Nobody deserves to be treated that way. If I just stood by and said nothing, I would be less decent than I hoped to be; I would be mistreating him with my cowardice. My silence would be my colluding with my aunt in setting the bar for decency shamefully low. I would have made an ass of myself, too, in the passive way.

I read somewhere that people often make the mistake of thinking that all must be harmonious—but “never harmony if that means your life-music being adapted to the mood and music of the world.” Sometimes, a desire for “harmony” is what blinds us to the ills around us, not realizing that the harmony we seek to have or preserve is a shallow, fake one. We go along with the way things are because we don’t want to rock the boat, we’re afraid of any kind of unpleasantness, we’re afraid of upsetting anyone by pointing out something we feel isn’t right. That’s how it’s usually been in my extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins smiling and not saying how they really feel, sweeping unpleasant things under the rug, giving the impression that we all get along and that all’s well in the tribe. But underneath that surface harmony seethe darker, more honest emotions that threaten to explode at the slightest trigger.

It’s been a week that my aunt and I haven’t spoken and my mom still wishes I had done things differently—meaning, that I had just kept my mouth shut and let things slide, for the sake of family harmony.

But I have foregone family harmony for my beliefs and my values before. And I hope I will keep doing it, no matter what.

So, no. I don’t think there will be any quick-fix let’s-all-just-get-along reconciliatory embrace anytime soon. Not for me.

Sorry, Mom.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Movie Moment

Just indulge me this, OK? :)

I had a little pang-sine moment this afternoon…

I was on the elevator with the assistant stage manager of our play, a nice bright-eyed young man named Brian, coming from rehearsals at our director’s apartment unit. It was the first time I met Brian who, it turns out, is a second year Broadcast student at UP.

“Hey!” I said. “That was exactly my course when I was in UP.”

He looked at me quizzically. “You graduated na?”

“Yeah”, I said. “Years ago.”

His puzzlement seemed to deepen. “Why? When did you graduate?”

I couldn’t remember. At least, not instantly. But what I did instantly remember was that I am 35 years old. So I said, “I’m 35”, and let him do the math.

His jaw dropped—I’m not kidding. Quite the theatre guy. “You’re 35?!”

I smiled one of those smiles that I really mean to be a neutral one but I think comes out as kind of uncertain. I never know if a person is going make a fuss about how old I am or…“Yeah…”

“Talaga?” Brian was still reeling when the elevator doors opened and a Caucasian man and two little boys got in. “Nooooo. I can’t believe you’re 35.”

I stepped closer to Brian, tapped his arm lightly and requested, under my breath, that “’Wag mo namang i-announce”, hoping that by saying it in Tagalog, I could limit that awkward conversation to the two of us.

Too late. The Man with the Little Boys bowed his head a little and tried to keep his chuckle to himself. But it was too late for him, too, because I heard him—we were in a small, enclosed space, after all. Plus, I saw his expression in the elevator mirror.

“Did you get that?” I asked the Chuckling Man.

He looked up, saw me in the mirror and nodded, smiling.

“Ok.” What else was I supposed to say, right?

The elevator doors opened on the third floor--perhaps the pool area--and the man ushered his two little boys out. When he stepped out himself, he held the elevator door open with one hand to give this parting shot: “If it’s any consolation, you look 21.” Then he smiled. And the elevator doors slid shut.

Hee-hee ;). Twenty-one…

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Second Teenhood

Let me say this now: I am having the teenage life I always wished I had. At age 35. To my parents’ utter horror.

My younger brother and I are the only ones currently living with my parents; my three sisters each have their own apartments, two of whom have a roommate. While my brother still clings to the idea that he is a self-sufficient grown-up by sometimes handing over “rent” money to my mom (and you see the pain written all over his face) when she reminds him that he once promised to help out with the bills, I have completely abandoned all pretense. For the past year, I have conducted myself as a shameless teenager—never once volunteering to pay any sort of house bill; blinking wordlessly, unhelpfully, from my mom to my dad to my brother as they discuss which adult is going to do what adult chore that day while I eat my breakfast and burp; then locking myself in my room to read, write and listen to my iPod…only coming out to stand in front of the open ref surveying the food, eat again and hang out.

I often sit in the garden in the afternoon, with my feet up on a chair, drinking my mom’s orange juice, thinking, What did I ever do to deserve this, God? (Burp.)

I remember doing the exact same things when I was an actual teenager, but I do not recall also feeling this light and free and fortunate—the feeling, I imagine, of one of those medieval, docile prisoner-slaves carrying huge, heavy sacks on their shoulders as they climb a hill and who are finally unchained and miraculously set free. Except that I wasn’t a very docile prisoner-slave. I was, rather, of the rage-against-the-machine mold.

As a teenager, I refused to accept that simply because of my age and my material dependence on my parents, they had the power to deny me certain basic civil liberties. Such as the liberty to go and watch my crush compete in a skateboarding competition. Or to stay at a party past 11:00 PM. Or to watch a concert with friends. Or to not attend mass—or pray the rosary--when I didn’t feel like it. Or to wear torn jeans and a t-shirt without my dad going stark raving mad ala Dr. David Bruce Banner and end up cutting those jeans to smithereens in his own fit of rage when I refused to change to “more decent clothes”.

I felt burdened and oppressed. And my reaction to this was to be defiant, defensive, combative, angry. I seemed to be in a constant state of “Fuck off, fuckers!”

As if.

A prisoner-slave can bang at her cage and rattle her chains all she wants, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s still just a prisoner-slave who is exactly where her masters want her to be: rooted to the spot and within their line of sight.

I saw teenhood as a prison, a slave ship, and so there was nothing I wanted more than to break free, to jump overboard—to be done with high school and go off to college or to get a job already, move out and not have to live by anyone else’s (house) rules but my own. I couldn’t wait to get to my 20’s, which I came to view as the Promised Land. To my mind, my life in my 20’s would be an existence populated by mature people—people who were kind and secure enough with themselves to never impose their beliefs and opinions and will on others, who never think themselves better or worse off than anyone, people who gladly live and let live. It would be a life, in other words, where I wouldn’t be seen as just a dumb rebellious kid who didn’t know what was best for her; and I wouldn’t have to fight so much to have my opinions heard or my choices respected.

I thought that when I hit 20, the attitude towards me of the adults in my family would magically change. No such luck. For years I’ve wondered about this. Why was it, I wondered, that no matter how mature and capable and grown-up I feel at work or with my friends, all that disappeared and I would find myself regressing into the angsty, juvenile, “rebellious” teenager that I had been years ago whenever I was surrounded by my parents, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, even my siblings and cousins. It was as though all my hard work at trying to reach the level in which the adults treated me like an equal meant nothing. It almost seemed like it didn’t matter that I was already living on my own, paying my own bills, cooking my own food and basically fending for myself. I don’t think anything frustrated me more. Many times, I’ve been tempted to throw a fit at one of the frequent big family gatherings—you know, kick and pound the floor with my fists, screaming at the top of my lungs, “I’M A GROWN-UP, GROWN-UP, GROWN-UP!!! Treat me like a GROWN-AAAAAAAP!!!!” 

Then, a couple of years ago, a miraculous clue (what Oprah refers to as an “Aha! moment”). I had borrowed one of my sisters’ copy of Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul  and I came across this passage: “The more we try to cover up our ignorance, the more it is displayed. The more we try to act cool and suave, the more obvious our inexperience. The more adult we try to be, the more childishness we betray.”


Over the following months, I slowly realized that there was in me a teenage girl who felt robbed of her youth because I was in a hurry to make her grow up, to be “mature” and “responsible” (so that she could hightail it out of her parents’ house already). I was pretty tough on her--didn’t allow her to make mistakes, to be wrong, to ask for help or to admit that she was scared of many things. I didn’t even allow her to have a little kiss with a boy she liked (“Do you want to get pregnant? Be a hapless teenage mom who never gets to go to college or do anything with her life except feed the baby and fight with your equally hapless teenage husband? That is, if he even marries you.”) nor to have a boyfriend because “all teenage relationships are juvenile” and God forbid if I’d let her be anything but serious, thoughtful, mature, responsible, selfless, independent, strong. No wonder she rebelled, showing up as much as she could in my 20’s and 30’s--defiantly wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, refusing to learn to wear make-up or my mom’s “real” jewelry (instead of the beads and “friendship bands” and Kabbalah string that adorned my neck and wrists) because they looked like something older people wore—demanding, “I want my time! Give me my time!

I began to suspect that she—this incredibly disgruntled, disenfranchised teenage part of me--was the reason I couldn’t truly progress in my life, the reason I couldn’t honestly see myself as a grown-up. There was just so much unfinished business there, and her outbursts and juvenile antics were betraying my immaturity at every turn. In short, the girl was cramping my style.  

So last year, I finally decided to give the rebel-biyatch her time. Swallowing my pride, I asked my mom if I could move back home and be her and my dad’s dependent for a year. I promised myself I would not give me a hard time about not earning any money, about not contributing to the expenses at home and to just happily, gratefully be “selfish” and “irresponsible”. Meaning, I would just do what I enjoy, do what feels natural to me without any sort of guilt or anxiety or worry or judgment about not doing what I am “supposed” to be doing. No more overly self-critical speeches of “By now, at this age, you should already be this and that, you should already have this and that…” No more crazy-impossible expectations of myself (i.e. being everything I ever wanted to be RIGHT NOW) .No more being my own restrictive parent. No more raining on my own parade. No more getting in my own way. No more swatting my parents’ hand away when they try to help me out—no more arrogant and defensive I-can-take-care-of-myself-thank-you-very-much.  

Hay, please, enough of that. In other words, nagpakatotoo na talaga ako--the full-blown, all-out version.

Since fully embracing my teenage self—that part in each of us that needs to be free to make “mistakes”, that doesn’t know all the answers and is OK with that, that does things just because it wants to; that part of us that eternally lives on the exciting border between childhood innocence and wonder and adult knowledge and strength—my world has really opened up for me in ways that I had only wistfully imagined for years. More than ever, I feel that the life I’ve always wanted for myself is becoming real.

Just a month ago, I finally did something I’ve always wanted to do in high school but never found the nerve: I auditioned for a play. (Scary hyena delirious grin here.) It’s not something the adult me would have done—acting in a play was way too self-indulgent for her; even more self-indulgent than writing. Besides, the adult me had too many inhibitions, too many what-if-I’m-doing-this-all-wrong concerns cramming her head. She would have successfully talked me out of even thinking about auditioning. Lucky for me, I had already vested my teen self with equal, if not more, muscle power. And so off she went, determined to just enjoy herself.

A week later, I got a text message from the theatre company telling me to check my email. In it, I was told that I got the part. Rehearsals to begin in January 2009. I tore through the house screaming. Edith, our household help, thought I had been possessed by one of the elemental spirits that live in the mango tree at the back of our house.   

I can’t believe how free I feel right now. Everyone, I think, should give themselves the chance to revisit the part of their lives that feels a bit off, that makes them wish it were somehow different, and then make those changes. In no part in a person’s life is that possible than adulthood. In fact, I think that’s what adulthood is for—to allow ourselves second, third, fourth chances at childhood, teenhood, even adulthood…or as long as it takes to get it right, to feel that our lives are exactly the way we want it. We’re now in a position to acquire the tools needed to fix what we think needs fixing or to give  ourselves what we need.  

I realize that the reason I was so resentful of and defensive around my parents’ and other people’s expectations of me was that they merely mirrored my own impossibly high expectations of myself. I couldn’t stand their disappointment with me because I couldn’t stand my disappointment with me. I needed to find a way to be kinder to myself, more compassionate and accepting--more than I already thought I was being. 

My mom used to always ask me this question, “So what are your plans?” It was always such a tricky question, like a bomb that could go off any moment. I never knew how to negotiate it. It made me feel that the life I was having at the moment wasn’t legitimate or valid enough and that having “plans”—future prospects—was going to make it so. So then I’d either go into a full detail of my “plans”, my dreams, and then feel my mom’s attention drift off, which I always took as her unbelief in what I was saying and then I’d end it with a curt, “Forget it, it doesn’t matter”, or I’d feel cornered and, thus, give a defensive “Basta.”

But when I made the decision to free myself of unhealthy, killer expectations—and to just let things flow naturally by embracing everything that I am, to just be—I found that the most liberating, most empowering answer to my mom’s question was, “None. No plans.” Then, with a grin, just because I couldn’t help it: “Oh, there’s one: I plan to stay in this house forever.” It is such a perfect conversation ender; my mom rolls her eyes, sips her tea and totally drops the whole thing.

These days, the happy, grateful, angst-free teenager that is me goes with her dad on regular movie dates—his treat, always; my mom leaves baon for me, without my ever asking, when she goes out of town; and they no longer insist that I attend mass with them. In fact, my dad tries—unsuccessfully--to bribe me into attending their Catholic group’s frequent lectures/seminars (“After that, we’ll have midnight snack…at Pancake House!” Nice try, Pops.) I tell him, “Sure!…if you come with me and hear service at my church this Sunday”, to which he makes a face and stomps away…possibly being his little boy self.

I can’t really say I blame him. After being a parent for the past thirty-six years and trying to be an "adult" all that time, the guy needs a break sometimes.