Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Denying mortality. Or, the nightmare of unplanned elder care.

This is Essay #21 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

[I'm taking a small break from the Tizon tizzy. There is also the matter of the recent martial law declaration in the Philippine island of Mindanao, which is getting me worked up too. More on these things later. I need to clear my head. In the meantime, there is this.]


How do you write about growing old? How do you write about coming to terms with your own mortality when your parents are in denial of theirs? How do you fucking write about any of it?

You find yourself sitting in the school auditorium on a Saturday night, waiting for the play to begin. There is loud chatter between parents, the mad dash of younger kids trying to play tag between the metal folding chairs. This is the first play for your oldest and, you suspect, not the last. Your mother leans over and asks about the rest of the visit from your in-laws. You pause and consider what to tell her.

Your in-laws are elderly and in the past year or so, their mental health has declined at a rapid rate. Unfortunately, due to said mental health decline, they are unaware of this and continue to live their day-to-day lives as they always have, believing things are the same as they ever were. Never mind that he got lost coming home from the fitness center that is five minutes away –a drive that he’s done for the past twenty-five years-- and it took him three hours to find his way back. Never mind that she asks the same question three times in a span of five minutes. (As you write this, you can already hear Hubs telling you that you are exaggerating about his mother, that you are blowing things out of proportion. Perhaps. But if you are, there is a point to be made: they are not fit to live independently any longer. And we are all in agreement on that.)

It seems your in-laws have not put an aging plan into place. (Whether this is an actual term has yet to be determined, but the basic concept is there.) It is safe to say that they presumed there was no need for such a plan, in which they specify instructions for their care. Perhaps they imagined they would simply pass away in their sleep. No physical complications. No mental health issues. Nothing. Just: one day you’re here; the next: you’re asleep forever. Ha. If only it were that simple for everyone.

You will not go into detail about the difficult struggles Hubs and his siblings have endured this past year, more intensely over the last week or so… or about the emotional labor and exhaustion this has brought on. It is too overwhelming. You can only pay attention, taking mental notes for when your own parents come to this threshold.

Amid the echo of chatter in the auditorium, you try to tell your mother that things are bad. Really bad. But the noise it too loud for you to go in depth about it. You tell her that they need a plan, that they need to figure out what they’re going to do when they’re elderly. She shrugs it off as if to say: No, I don’t. We don’t need a plan. But you insist: Yes, you do. Because we are not going to go through what they are going through right now. You stop short of threatening to abandon them. This needs a more delicate touch.

You know your parents pretty well. You especially know how stubborn your father is. Not “can be”, but “IS”. He is convinced that he will live forever and in perfect health. He has the vitamins and supplements to prove it. But vitamins can’t protect from everything, like, say, car accidents.

But how do you communicate this to people who are set in their ways (which are most of us)? How do you tell them that you’ve seen firsthand the kind of grief that puts love to the test? That you don’t want to go through that test if you don’t have to. That a plan will help in some way. That a plan will demonstrate their love for you – that they are thinking of you instead of themselves, a true act of love.

You have no idea.

But you have to try. Try something. Try everything.

Life is unpredictable, but most of us live as if it weren't. Most of us live asleep, on auto-pilot. And while it’s not possible to prepare for every scenario, something needs to be in place, especially when it comes to elder care. And that something needs to be put in place now, when all mental faculties are running at full capacity.

And with that, you begin to write down what you’re witnessing with your in-laws, hoping that your own parents will see how necessary an aging plan is.

And then pray.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

More (reactionary) thoughts on the Tizon essay

(aka: Notes, snippets, mishmosh of thought and emotion)

I'm still digesting, processing, unpacking, untangling and peeling back layers. Since my last post, there have been a good number of responses from within the Filipino/Fil-Am community. I am glad. We need to make our voices heard. (It’s important to note that not all the voices are in agreement.) This one by Melissa Sipin is the only one I've seen from the perspective that *wasn't* positioned in the upper/middle classes. And I am grateful for her essay-in-progress. I think we're all working on something in-progress. I know I am.

So these past couple of days, I've alternated between being angry and weeping. Sometimes both at the same time. And yes, I've run the gamut of emotions in between. This morning, I'm feeling particularly all-over-the-place. There is still so much. I started writing something yesterday and came back to it this morning. And then I found myself asking: who the fuck am I –and American-born Filipina from a middle class family— to be writing anything about this?

And then, I responded to myself: That’s the stupidest self-talk I ever heard. Of course you’re to write about this! You must. Because you’re Filipina. American-born or not, you need to offer your voice to the mix. Do not silence yourself.

Yeah. Writers talk to themselves like this all the time.


Questions. There are at lot of questions in my head. So let’s start there (can’t promise any answers):

Why did Alex Tizon write this story? I understand that he started writing it in 2011 after Eudocia’s death, but why? What made him say to himself: “I’m going to tell this story”? Was he trying to conduct some kind of penance: to admit his guilt, his complicity in all of this and to try to set things right by pulling back a curtain on the utusan? I can’t say for sure. If his widow doesn’t know, then no one will truly know.

But I will say this: this is Alex’s story, not Eudocia’s. Do not be fooled into thinking otherwise. Everything we see and hear and feel is all orchestrated by Alex: his specific viewpoint as well as his writing – from the words he chooses to how he builds sentences and narrative arc. This is how literature works. It’s a conversation between writer and reader. Our responses are based on our individual selves and our individual experiences and relationships to, not just the moments happening in the story, but to the language itself.

This is why his essay triggered a lot of emotions for me.

For one, it’s a story about a Filipino family. It is rare for me to see stories about myself and my cultural heritage – to see Filipinos in mainstream media—so when I get to read one, I get really really excited. But when I saw “My Family’s Slave” with Eudocia’s photo, my gut went: uh-oh. Then, when I read that Alex's family addressed Eudocia as “Lola”, my body tensed. That’s what my kids call my mother. “Lola” is “grandmother” in Tagalog.

How jarring to put the words “slave” and “lola” together.


As writers we aim to seek out truths. And truths vary. But inevitably, they are our own. Readers sometimes forget this. How we put words together, which words we choose, how we build paragraphs – these things reveal more about us than we’d like to admit. But in connection with that, readers are also applying their truths to what they read. Consider the varied responses to Tizon’s piece. How many were “selectively reading”? (e.g one sees the word “slavery” and immediately forms an opinion before reading the rest of the story, if they finish reading it) Consider each person’s sociopolitical position and how that informs their response (e.g. West vs. East). Too often, we all forget these things. And that has never been truer than this moment.

Filipino writers and academics are offering nuanced, critical responses to this story by including cultural and sociopolitical contexts (there we go, educating folks on our culture yet again). Some are responding to these thoughts as defense for Tizon’s family’s actions, as if we were trying to excuse Tizon and his family for their actions. This is what I mean by “selective”. Nowhere does anyone defend what’s happened to Eudocia, but yet, here they are, telling us we are making excuses for Tizon.

[A random aside regarding visibility: I find this an interesting moment for Filipinos in that we are presently in the American spotlight – what will we do with this moment?]

Some are wondering if we could ever know Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s story. I would be interested in hearing it, but the likelihood of someone in a similar situation speaking out? Close to none. Why? Because most of these folks are conditioned to understand their place in the rankings. Sharing their personal story is not an option for them, if it even crosses their minds. 


I am exhausted. Emotionally drained.


What is my complicity in this? What about all of our collective complicity? Once we’ve admitted that we are / I am complicit in creating and allowing for these situations to happen, then what? What do we do with this?

In order to solve this problem, in the most basic, reductive terms, we’d have to scrap the Philippines – heck, probably every nation—and start over. This is an issue that is intricately tied across the globe. The historical and sociopolitical structures are so deeply embedded. But a do-over is not an option. So what can we do instead?


I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore.

Time to stop here. To take a break. Practice self-care.

[to be continued]

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

That Atlantic story about a "family slave"

This is Essay #20 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

Do you know what it’s like to be invisible? To not see yourself in the world around you? To not see people brown like you in books, in movies, on television? To grow up thinking that you’re just like every(white)one else? Until, of course, some(white)one points it out to you either directly or microaggressively.

Imagine the thrill, then, to be able to read a book in which you completely understand and identify with the characters because you recognize that language, those turns of phrase, that obsession with American pop culture, even if your own actual life was totally different. For me, it was Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. That book changed my life. I never imagined that someone could write a book, let alone it be considered literature. about Filipinos. That someone could write with language that I used in conversation instead of that stuffy elevated British version of English.

Suddenly, the world opened up for me.

Twenty years later, there still aren’t that many books written by Filipinos for Filipinos. Yes, there are more books being written and published, but not enough in that we are a significant part of the visible literary landscape.

And then yesterday, “My Family’s Slave” was published in the June issue of The Atlantic.

Before I started to read, I looked at the photo. It was of a woman who looked Filipina, who reminded me of similar photos I’ve seen of my relatives, my ancestors. I started to guess what this story was about and felt myself bracing for whatever I was about to encounter. I sensed it was going to be difficult.

“Difficult” doesn’t even come close.

Tizon’s story sounded familiar: a family struggling, looking to the United States for better opportunities. Once there, more struggle to make ends meet. But they persisted. The difference here is that they had what Tizon calls “a family slave”, Lola.

There’s so much to unpack here and I don’t even know where to begin. So let me start by saying: I am writing this as part of my processing. I may say things that are upsetting or politically incorrect or offensive or whatever. Fuck that shit. This is my blog and this is what I’m thinking IN THIS MOMENT. My thinking could change as soon as I hit “Publish”. Whatever. I need to say what I need to say. Now.

The Philippines is an incredibly poor country, despite appearances (which are usually sourced from a single place in an archipelago of over 7,000 islands: Manila. Or, if you’re feeling exotic, then the Banaue Rice Terraces). That kind of poverty makes you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. (And before you jump all over me: I’m not make excuses – I am giving context.) The fact that Tizon’s grandfather “gave” Lola as a “gift” to Tizon’s mother is not unusual (though I will say that I have issue with the words he chose to use (“gave” and “gift”) – perhaps that was intentional to create the response that he has now received). Poor people look for ways to survive; wealthy people exploit that. This is nothing new. This is how humans have operated for a very long time. Tizon mentions that even poor people take advantage of those who are poorer.


When I first traveled to the Philippines, I was already an adult in my late 20s. I went with my mom and grandma (my lola), whom I was taking home to Lucban, where she wanted to live out the rest of her days. At this point, I already had a general understanding of class structures. For one, I knew that we’d have a driver who would take us to the condo where we were staying (it’s not safe to move through Manila without one you can trust – I’ve heard stories of robberies and the like).  Then, we’d have another driver a few days later to take us to Lucban, about a four-hour drive through mountains. So far, this all makes sense.

Then, I was also told that we’d have a housekeeper. To which I thought: What? Why one earth would we need a housekeeper in a *condo*? Heck, why would we need one at all? What would she even do? It’s not like we’re not living there; we’re just sleeping there. We’d planned to be out and about during the day. Later, when we arrived at the condo, I’d discover that she was also our cook and our hospitality hostess. She offered beverages and snacks the moment we walked in. She asked me if there was anything I wanted from the grocery store or if I any special meal requests. I was bewildered.

She had this little room off the kitchen –a closet really, with just a chair where she’d sit, awaiting her next command (I hate to use that word, but it goes back to Tizon’s explanation of the role of these domestic workers as utusans). It was awkward. I was wholly uncomfortable. I wanted to tell her that she could go home, that we didn’t need anything. But my mom said she needed the money.


The next morning, she was in the kitchen, cooking garlic fried rice and longganisa (my favorite sausage). When we emerged from our bedroom, she immediately asked: coffee? To which I nodded and sat down at the small glass table. She had set the table for breakfast. Within minutes, she served our tapsilog: the rice, the longganisa, and eggs over easy, with a side of tuyo (dried sardine). It felt weird having someone serve me breakfast in a condo.


I wept the entire time I read Tizon’s story. I felt myself nodding at the struggle of it all. I got angry towards his parents for how they treated Lola, but could see how my own parents might have acted the same way. I could also see the difficulty Tizon endured to write this story –to break that silence so conditioned in most Asian cultures—and put pen to paper –to so do (seemingly*) unflinchingly, but with compassion. It takes some guts to not only be truthful about this reality, but also to put himself out there as complicit in all of it.

(*Note: we all know that stories are subject to the one who tells it. There is an article, a kind of memorial/ obituary, here that presents a different perspective. Which one is true? Which one is reality? Can there be more than one?)

A lot of people are up in arms now, the day after. Everyone’s got an opinion. Most of them are split between “Oh my God how brave of him to share this story!” and “How could you let this go on for as long as it did, Master??” (I can’t ignore how much of the story’s title created this kind of response. Was the title written this way in order to create a kind of sensationalism? We must ask these questions.) There is very little in between. There is little nuance, little critical thinking to unpack the layers.  Many people are selectively reading; others are creating their versions of meaning. This is what happens in the experience of reading. No? But on the whole, many of the voices being amplified are outsiders. I have yet to see someone from within the Filipino culture –heck, from ASIAN culture in general—express their opinion. Not to say that we’re not talking –oh, hell yeah, we’re talking!—but is anyone giving us the SPACE to express voice?? Nope. None that I can see.

So unless you take the time to peel the layers, to look at them more closely & more critically, to understand the context within which this story happens, then shut the fuck up with your judgments. Shit is more complex and complicated than you think.

Now, excuse me while I go process some more. Including the fact that Eudocia Pulido was called Lola (which means “grandmother” in Tagalog) and that both of my grandmothers, my lolas lived with us when I was growing up. Yeah, let me go untangle that.

[To be continued...]

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Melancholy: finishings, endings

This is Essay #19 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

This week started another unfurling of the Long Goodbye.

After ten months, I will officially complete my 200-hour yoga teacher training this weekend. For whatever reason, I can’t help by feel fatalistic. Unlike the conclusion of my residency at VSC, this feels like a permanent ending, a closing of a book. Not a chapter, but an entire book. And I don’t know why.

It doesn’t make sense. Many of the people in our group are members of the studio where we are training. So I’ll see them in class from time to time. With some, I’ve developed a strong bond and will for sure stay in touch. Right?

But will we really? Will we really stay connected as closely as we have over the past several months? I doubt it. It’s terrible for me to say, I know. And really, I’m not a pessimist. So where is this coming from?

During the year, we tried organizing dinners and outings, but it never quite turned out like we imagined. Everyone was all in and then at the last minute (quite literally, as we’re walking out the studio doors), people would drop out. Things would come up: people would complain about being tired or remembering some forgotten commitment. And four people would be left out of the eleven who said yes. (At least that’s what happened this last time we tried.) Everyone has their priorities. And they’re not always in alignment.

But I think it’s more than that.

I’m feeling the pull-away.

Maybe it’s because I was at VSC during last training weekend. And while I did participate via videoconference, it wasn’t the same. (I know: totally nerd to do that –to participate remotely—but there’s so much material covered that the idea of trying to catch up was far worse than Skyping in.) I felt left out. It was an awful feeling. To not be part of the loving energy of that group? To not be physically present? That totally sucked. So much so that I started to wonder if playing catch-up was actually better. I almost hung up on the conference call.

That’s when I sensed the beginning of the Long Goodbye. And that this one was different.

During the fourth week of my residency, I was a little sad, but also felt hopeful. Inspired. I filled my creative well with so much abundance! And felt grateful for the people I engaged with, for the things I learned. Leaving didn’t feel like an ending. It felt like a moving on, but carrying the wisps of that experience with me. Like a tail of a comet.

This Goodbye feels weirdly final.

Everyone feels so distant.

Or maybe it’s me who’s (unknowingly) distant.

Or a little of both.


Melancholy is defined by Miriam-Webster as “an abnormal state attributed to an excess of black bile and characterized by irascibility or depression; a depression of spirits; a pensive mood”

Perhaps I am all three right now:

1. Black bile coats the inside of my mouth. Coats my throat. Lines my stomach. Its darkness radiates out into the rest of my body, weighing it down like lead. A shiny patent leather finish.

Is this what finishing feels like? To complete? To end?

1a. Irascible. Erasable. Melancholy erases. With hot temper. A pour of scalding water.

2. The press of a finger into the smooth surface of my spirit. De/press. To press down. To bring down. To sadden. Depress. Push pockets into smooth. Pockmarks. Spirit pushed down into earth.

3. Pensive in the pen that sieves thoughts, hoping to gather larger hunks of gold as sand sifts through, pulled down by gravity. Do you understand the gravity of this finish(ing)? The weight of this de/pression? Think. Ponder on the pond of her distance, her melancholy. That melody so sweet, so sad like butterscotch candy on the tongue.


While I’ve been able to function with some level of “normalcy” (whatever that means) during this second week back, I’m not sure I’m done with re-entry. I’m not so sure I will ever be done. What needs to happen is a revision of the old life to accommodate the revised post-residency me.

But as I consider the end of my yoga teacher training, a new Self is being birthed. I keep using the word “revision”, but that doesn’t feel accurate. I truly feel like a new version of me is emerging. Totally new. Not cosmetic edits here and there. Not a resurfacing. (Or is it? A surfacing of a Self long forgotten?) More like: core changes that result in a dazzling new Me.

And that’s not something to be melancholy about. Because, like Brenda Lane Richardson said: “great outbursts of creativity alternate with feelings of extreme melancholy”. The next upswing will be a brilliant outburst of creativity. I just know it.


So here’s the good news: today is Vesak Day when people celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha (forgive my oversimplification). Tonight’s full moon holds potent energy. Now is the time to clear the things that no longer serve us, to acknowledge the things that are coming to conclusion (YTT!), and to set new intentions for the next twelve months.

“A full moon can feel like the end of a chapter or the completion of a significant phase in our lives, as it brings closure, change, rebirth, as well as being a great manifestation of something new. It is a time where we can reflect on what no longer serves us so that, with gratitude, we can release old energy and create clean space to begin anew.” - from Elephant Journal

And suddenly, all of this makes sense. Oh, how wise the ways of the Universe.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Experiment with Silence

This is Essay #18 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

Have you ever tried going a day without speaking? Deliberately not using your voice?

I tried it yesterday. I didn’t speak for about 16 hours.

It started with me saying something regrettable to my youngest kiddo.

I’ve been home about 3 days after spending a month at Vermont Studio Center for a writing residency. Re-entry is hard, to say the least. Re-entry like the burn of a space shuttle’s orbiter back into the atmosphere. It takes time, too. And, for me, it requires plenty of recovery sleep (which I haven’t been getting).

Yesterday morning was especially challenging since it called for me to take on full mama responsibilities before I was ready. Nothing like a Monday morning to kick your ass back into the swing of things! Needless to say, I was irritable. Waking up kids, packing lunches, and driving to school? No, thanks. All I wanted to do was sleep. On top of this, my youngest was tired and cranky. She, too, just wanted to sleep. In my world, I’d just gather her up and get both of us back under the covers. But, alas, the real world was banging down the door.

In my irritation, complete with short temper & frustration, I blurted out: “Maybe I should go back to Vermont”. Instantly, I regretted saying it. There’s no need to discuss the messaging here. I already know. I apologized and corrected it. But it also gave me pause.

Suddenly, I didn’t want to talk anymore. My mouth didn’t want to open. My larynx wanted to make no sound. My jaw seemed to grip tighter.


Voice box: colloquial term for larynx. A box that contains voice. Voice inside a box. What is voice? Who gets to open the box? What sound comes out? What is the sound of your voice? What is the sound of mine? My voice is in the key of G. Girl voice. Box of voices harmonizing through chords. Vocal chords. A chorus of harmony to create the key of G. Girl. Voice. Sing.


The drive to school was interesting. If you know me, I love singing in the car. I didn’t sing. I couldn’t. I tried. It felt weird. Like I was forcing something to happen that refused. So I just kept quiet.

It was then that I decided to just refrain from speaking for the rest of the day. My body had already decided for me, so why not just comply?

Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to interact with too many people yesterday. What’s funny is that I got to learn a lot about those people I did encounter during my day of silence.

I carried a small notepad and pen with me to communicate. I discovered that my handwriting is really scrawl so I had to exercise some patience to write more legibly. The people to whom I was writing also had to practie some patience while they waited for my message. Most people got a kick out it, watching me write, smiling the whole time.

A sample of my quick handwritten notes from my day of silence

There was something there in that silence, in that waiting. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s something worth investigating.

For some, the silence was a little awkward. I could tell from the tiny fidgeting movements. The shifting of weight from one foot to the other. The looking around. Others just laughed uncomfortably to fill the void.

The reactions I got were also telling. Some people, when I showed them my message, “No talking day today”, gave me this look like: I don’t get it, but okay. One friend, who is deep into yoga philosophy as much as I am, said to me directly: “You’re crazy, girl. Only you would do something like this.” Uh, what? What is that supposed to mean? Why am I crazy for practicing silence? And why is silence an act of crazy? I didn’t get it. I thought that she, out of most people, would at least try to figure out what I was trying to do. Instead, she wrote me off as “crazy”.

Another person didn’t think I was serious. That I was joking. Then, upon realizing I wasn’t joking, thought I was being ridiculous.

Later that night, I had hip-hop class. Prior to class, I texted my instructor to let him know what I was doing. When I got there, he announced to the class that I simply lost my voice, a case of laryngitis. He was honoring my experiment with some privacy – there’s no need to give those folks an explanation of what I was doing. And I appreciated what he did. He got it. He got what I was trying to do. He might have been the only one. After class, I wrote him a note saying that people think I’m a weirdo. He responded with: “You’re doing this for you. Who cares about them.”  What a great reminder. (Thank you, Tom!)

I found ways to communicate outside of using my voice. Gestures, mouthed words (I quickly learned who can read lips and who can’t! haha!), emails, text messages, and of course, handwritten notes.

For this last method, yes, I gained patience in order to write legibly, but I also had to write briefly (my notepad was small – the size of Post-It notes). I needed to be deliberate in my word choices. I had to make my words carry more weight than usual. This was certainly terrific practice for writing poetry!

When I did open my mouth to speak again this morning, my words felt purposeful. It sounds corny, almost melodramatic, but it’s true. The effects of not speaking for a whole day makes you think about how you use your voice and what you actually say. Are you saying things that matter? Are you saying them with kindness? (Tone matters, too.)

I was so fascinated by my experience with this experiment that I’m thinking of doing it again.

Silence is like a chameleon: it morphs from one thing to another, depending on its environment, carrying different meanings in various contexts. Intentional silence. Imposed silence. Quiet versus silent.

Who is listening?