2013 left while I was absorbed in the world of books: cleaning the shelves that have not been touched for years, discovering the titles, some of them still unopened since the day I bought them (a silent catastrophe!), dusting, covering the new ones, changing the covers of the old ones, fingering their pages, studying the moths, the fungi that had settled, leaving specks of browns on the pages; turning them over to find the traces of time or simply to note the scratching, or marks or writings someone left on the pages.
But most of all, reading!
Flitting from Annie Proulx’s "Accordion Crimes" to Alice Munro’s "Moons of Jupiter," to David Berlinski’s "A Tour of the Calculus," to James McPherson’s "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution," to Susan Sontag’s “Where the Stress Falls,” I could never get enough of them, I could not get over them; could never forget them, could never leave them alone, could never stop myself from going back to them over and over and again and again, couldn’t stop myself from talking about them, from exclaiming, from laughing, from crying, from quoting passages from them, from ejaculating, from dreaming, from thinking. I know I could never completely free myself of them, they become a regular part of myself; and so, as 2014 comes, I promise never to neglect myself completely as to deprive myself of them. I look forward to another year of secret, sneaky, passionate reading!
I used to tell myself, if I had the money, I wouldn’t waste it on some huge, extravagant Christmas tree such as this, with all of its stars and pendant balls flashing gold and silver all over, trying to attract all kinds of luck and money and fake friendships and greed. This year, I told my sister, who said she faithfully kept such a Christmas tree in her home, “Why don’t you want to make a political statement? Rebel against the established tradition? Make a Christmas tree that totally overhauls their concept of a Christmas tree, something that will disturb them, something that will shock and awe, or blow them away, something that will completely demolish their idea of a Tree?” She listened to me, as if, to consider. “How?” She asked.
But we were in a hurry then and instead of waiting for my reply, she began telling me me how, year after year, she had faithfully stuck to the tradition of the luxurious Christmas tree, so huge, it looms over you larger than life; its golden balls and golden stars so resplendent and decadent they never ceased to amaze the neighbors and all the guests who came to her house, year after year. "They were unerringly attractive," she said, as she mused over her own version of the talk-of-the-town-tree for years. So, I gleaned from her gestures, she could not easily give up that idea of a tree, it was the tree that served her purpose, it was what she considered the right tree for her, looming over her and over everyone who beheld it to stand for what it was supposed to stand.
But I wanted another kind of tree and I knew it would take an extraordinary amount of courage, another grit of spirit, and another perspective, to put up a Tree that will overturn this concept of the tree, to crush and challenge commonly-held beliefs and assumptions and turn the world upside down. It would take another kind of bravery to come up even with an idea of such a tree, and then, to turn the idea into flesh!
At the Bookshop, I caught sight of Herman Hesse’s “Gertrude,” (a translation, at a dirtcheap price of P70), grabbed it, put it on top of the bantam-sized, unabridged copy of DH Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” [[the 1981 and 1993 film versions of which I just watched very recently, deep in the night, while Ja and Sean snored only a few feet away from me]]. Tucking both books safely in my arms, I cast my eyes upon the rummage bin and caught sight again of Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” another irresistible sight I pretended not to see, as I kept turning some more books, inspecting their covers, and unwittingly unearthed Marguerite Duras’s “Four Novels,” and “Colette, Una Vida,” a Spanish translation of Herbert Lottman’s “Colette, A Life,” a book I suddenly desperately wanted to buy more because of my obsession with Spanish than because of my obsession with the writings of the French author Gabrielle Sidonie Colette. I remember Sengthong and Prateehba years ago, laughing, when I arrived at the Esteban Abada dorm, showing my loot of cheap Spanish books I bought on sale at the Instituto de Cervantes, complete with stems of red American roses I gave to the girl at the nearby shoe repair shop because I can’t bear to bring them on my long ride back to the dorm, where Seng, astonished to see all the Spanish books bought at dirt cheap prices, asked, “So, you read Spanish?” and me, correcting him, “I want to read Spanish, that’s why, I bought them.” Prateesh laughed as Seng, shocked, retreated to his room to read about the American Founding Fathers. After that, I started reading my basic Spanish, once in a while. Even without my six units in Basic and Advanced Spanish Lessons back in college, I thought Spanish was quite an easy language to learn for Filipinos like me, because, except for a few consonants and some subtle vowel sounds, you could not really be far too wrong about its pronunciation. Yet, I never really had enough time to keep at it, I live in what has always been a tough and tumble kind of world, always on the run, night and day, sometimes, even in my sleep, I feel I'm still running, chasing the news; so, I never had the chance to stop, think, ruminate, and learn Spanish. Years ago, when my Spanish obsession started, Ja asked, and he has been asking ever since, what kind of madness has driven me to suddenly want to learn Spanish, when it used to be the most hated subject back in college, discarded from the regular curriculum in later years because people thought it was useless? I decided my yearning to learn the language had something to do with all those Spanish authors who had some original works in Spanish, whether it be Rizal, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz or Jorge Luis Borges. They were never really “useless” to me. I came up with quite a lot more reasons: The original edicts to the colony were once written in Spanish, remember? Our early oppression had been in Spanish. Perhaps, my yearning also had something to do with my desire to know what happened. Or does it have something to do with a penchant to break the images in the mirror: how can you break them if you have never seen them intact?
They call the YlangYlang the perfume tree because of the fragrance its flowers exude in the rainforest. They extract the fragrant oil as an ingredient in the making of expensive perfumes, among them, the famous Channel 5, concocted by the designer Coco Channel in the early 20s. The tree’s fragrance is known to blend well with quite a number of floral scents. Environmentalists call the tree’s penchant to attract insects, rather heroic, because it saves precious crops from the damage. YlangYlang is known to thrive naturally in the Philippines and Indonesia, and an environmentalist friend told me, they’re using this tree to rehabilitate riverbanks.
These, I only learned later, after my first encounter with the tree.
I already had this heavy and oppressed feeling when I think of the rainforest in that place that people call Upper.
The last time I went there, I was surprised to see a whole tree, perhaps more than 50 years old, lying along the stretch of the river bank, like a corpse of an unknown person no one cared about. “Who fell that old tree?” I asked the workhand named Jimmy, upon whose hands Pa had entrusted the care of his farm. “Why is it left lying there?” J said it was a “useless” tree, totally of “no consequence, at all,” since its trunk would crack at the touch of the chainsaw. How could you measure the worth of a tree on how hard or how soft it could take the teeth of a chainsaw? I was about to ask. He said he had mistaken the tree for another tree he wanted cut for the wood he needed to build an extension to the pugon, the oven where he cook the coconut meat into copra. He also admitted he knew nothing about trees at all and couldn’t recognize one from the other, except perhaps, the hard timber trees he fell one after another to sell to somebody I did not know. “That’s criminal,” I said, “You took this tree for another tree and now, you leave it rotting on the banks.”
I failed to point out to him that his admission was contradictory. How could he say the tree was a “useless” tree when he even hardly knew the tree?
The idiot even stopped me from going near what remained of the fallen tree, which we can only view from an embankment overlooking Bal’wanan River. He said it was too steep to go down, I might fall; and the other way was too long and too roundabout, a too tiresome way to go. But I went, anyway. I literally crawled down the embankment, trying to keep my balance. I didn’t look at the tree because I knew I wouldn’t recognize it. Just like the idiot, I was also ignorant about trees; but unlike him, I did not think any tree was a useless tree. I was boiling mad because no one planted that tree, it was a natural flora in that rainforest; it survived the era of the logging and it had stood bravely and fiercely on its own in the forest for years. But then a complete idiot and a madman came down to fall it. He kept saying to me it was just an YlangYlang, a totally “useless” tree and this infuriating statement keeps ringing in my ears ever since, with alarm and urgency!
Just like any other healthy tree, my bookpile is growing very fast everyday, but no one is reading them yet. At least, officially: don't call my sneak-reading any legitimate form of reading because they're not supposed to be counted. I am still so busy getting my life back on track, trying to cover stories to get me back in circulation; cooking meals to test the limits of my herbs to Ja and Sean's discriminating tastes; running to the kanto, pretending to buy something at the corner grocery store and secretly hoping to lose some weight; sorting and re-arranging the clutter on my table, marking all my reporter's notebooks with dates and subjects of coverage, recording and remembering dreams, thinking about the rainforest in B'la, conjuring things. There will always be sometime at night when everyone is asleep and I turn on the lamp on my table, open the pages of Edith Wharton's Buccaneer and I will be transported back to another time, another place. Then, I will cease to be myself. I will be transformed into someone else I hardly know.
I ran after the last page of Colette’s "Cheri and The Last of Cheri," because Ja pushed me out of doors. This was a Sunday in October 2013, a day after I ran in the morning of Saturday, when it was already too late, the sun was up and very hot, and I did not know whether I was sweating because of the exertion or because of the heat. I would have turned back home but Ja wanted me to run to buy pandesal, so, I ran under the hot seven o’clock sun and fulfilled my mission; I brought home 10 pieces of pandesal for Ja and Sean, who did not like to eat pandesal anyway. That Sunday, I spent the entire day reading Colette; and when I got to the last page of the sad, sad story [[which meant that Colette was a serious writer]] it was already dark and I reminded myself I was supposed to run and when Ja heard me, he pushed me out of doors because running, he said, is a lonely enterprise, I got to face the fact all on my own. So, when I was running I started thinking of myself and the classes that occupied much of my time that semester and how, I was facing the prospect of not getting paid (I got paid, anyway) because I failed to process my papers because I had so many things to do and did not have enough time to do them. I also felt the students, most of them, were taking my classes for granted and suddenly, I was sick and tired of all the papers I had to check, I wanted to give up because I needed to get my writing back on track. I said I should strive to get my writing back on track by lining down all the stories I needed to write.
Just like those houses that lay devastated after the typhoon, I will pick up the pieces again, one by one, taking care to mend those which can still be mended and throwing out all those pieces which had to be discarded. I should sort out and pay attention only to the most important things in my life and avoid wasting time with certain types of people.