Turning Twenty-Eight

On the eve of my 28th birthday, I wrote an essay on depression and bulimia for Growing Up MNL. It took me maybe six hours to draft, and seven years to go through (though the depression part goes back to my preteen years).

When J. asked me if I could write a piece on my history of disordered eating, at first I was hesitant because it doesn’t feel nice to revisit that past. (Also, since I hardly read literature these days and instead subsist on academic tracts and papers, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to write with style, haha.) I still don’t quite know what I feel about writing it, though friends have told me they felt comforted as well as saddened by it. On the one hand, I’d already processed that experience years ago and made peace with it, so writing about it felt like picking on a scab. On the other hand, writing a kind of confessional made me feel more accountable to myself and to the people who’ve worried about me, especially my family (some of whom expressed their shock that I never told them I was going through something like that, and were like, How could you, don’tcha know we gotchu fam). My reasons for not telling were kind of complex, but I guess it boiled down to guilt and shame — for being depressed and for the reasons why I think I was depressed.

There’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, such that people don’t get help, or even admit to themselves that they’re suffering from it. So even when J. offered to publish the essay anonymously, I said, no, put my name in the byline. People should be able to talk about mental illness the way we can talk about physical ailments, like a broken bone or a chronic migraine. People shouldn’t have to keep it a secret, for fear of discrimination at work or school. People get sick from time to time, okay? That’s part of human existence, so we have to accept that, and deal with it in constructive ways, give ourselves time and space to heal, care for ourselves and one another.




In other news, I successfully defended my PhD research proposal last week! Now comes the more difficult work of doing what I said I’d do.


Photo: Jason Quibilan for Esquire Philippines (2015)



and on this night and in this light, I think


The other night, as I listened to a friend recount One Love Affair and its heady intensities, it occurred to me how vaguely I remembered mine, despite spending at least two years writing about little else but that, and brooding about him for four. I remember: how we met and when and where, what the weather was like, and what our first conversation was about; the first books we gave each other as birthday presents (Milton’s Paradise Lost; Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers); the bottle of wine I brought with my first of three confessions, the street where we lived, the events leading up to the day I got the word for a Greek virtue tattooed in red around my left wrist. Everything else, the small particularities, the comfortable banal activities that build up to adoration, now form sedimented knowledge: I loved him because he is a good man, because he is interesting and intelligent, responsible and driven, because we walked together and had many fine conversations, and it didn’t tire me to spend time with him. My mind, as I’ve observed, is a funny thing: I can well remember the things I’ve read (which helps with intertextual thinking and other nerdy operations), but my autobiographical memory is sketchy — what I don’t put down, I don’t remember, which is why I record all the time, and forget. What a luxury it is, to forget, knowing I have volumes of personal history archived, if I wanted to remember a time and a place and a feeling, but, well, when it comes to him, I don’t; I am quite happy now with my blurry recollections of a past in pastel hues, all pain excised from the picture — even if this misted impression prompts no interesting story.


Several weeks ago, my friend J. asked me, What’s the most wonderful thing that’s happened to you? I thought for a while and answered, One morning, I woke up after eight days of diarrhea, and found that I no longer felt like crying for hours every day after nine straight months of going through just that.

Do you think your depression had to do with him? another friend asked the other night.

Who knows? I grew up depressive, but I seem to be better now — I’m generally careful to get enough sleep, to eat clean, to exercise every day, to walk among trees and soak in sunlight, to mind my thoughts, to never again let any one person take up so much heart- and mind-space as to threaten my precious sanity.


John Berger, in And our faces, my heart, brief as photos (1984)“Human happiness is rare. There are no happy periods, only happy moments. But happiness is precisely a generalized pleasure. And the state of happiness can be defined by an equation whereby, at that moment, the gift of one’s well-being equals the gift of the existent.”


I used to dread the future, the sense that I’m barreling into a space of essential uncertainty. Alternatively: I used to dread the future, the sense of certainty that I would never be bereft of my existential sadness (or of my tendency toward solipsism). But there’s no way around it — life is contingency. Now I am simply thankful for the passage of time, how it reaves the attachments I latch onto, how it teaches me what I can do without. I am learning to trust time and its processes of accumulation and loss, to be open to what comes, to cherish the good that stays (while it stays), to let go of what leaves me, to keep a space of quietness where I can gently breathe.


On this day three years ago, I created a Tinyletter account and “sent letters” to my friends (though they were all really written for myself), every day for maybe half a year. I never reread what I wrote there.



Riffing on a commonplace



Walking up a street toward the old Blue House in Wanchai, dodging commuters on the busy sidewalk on a Friday afternoon, my friend suddenly asked, Do you think it’s possible to be in love with the same person for the rest of your life? He thought that this romantic ideal was doomed to produce boredom. I said, I think it depends on the quality of one’s attention. Walking briskly, he did not ask me to elaborate.


Pico Iyer in My Ideal Bookshelf: What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart.



Months ago, when I was new to this city, the same friend told me about his evening walks along the river, a walk that usually ended at the Light Rail station in the Town Centre, and recommended that I walk in that area sometime. Like most rivers in Hong Kong, the Tuen Mun River courses through an artificial channel, its bed and banks covered with concrete, its natural tributaries turned into underground waterways or cut dry. This means that even when it rains for days, people around here don’t worry about the river spilling into the streets, but also that when I gaze at the river, I do not think “river,” I think “canal,” and if I wanted a picnic on a bright day, I would rather spread a red-checkered cloth in a more idyllic elsewhere.

I said, Do you find the river pretty? He said, It depends on my mood, my state of mind.



Another time, he said that he didn’t find the beach I frequented beautiful, that it was just like any other beach, that it was not even natural, that the white sand there was quarried and brought from somewhere else (I wonder if they brought the sand from my home country that has the longest coastline and some of the finest beaches in the world). Maybe so, I may or may not have replied (this was a long while ago), but I like that beach because I’ve had memorable conversations there, nursing a bottle of soju or beer, sitting on the shore and watching the sun sink down the horizon, or dipping in the water, bobbing with the waves.


Lionel Shriver in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a novel on nihilism: Nothing is interesting if you are not interested.


Written after an afternoon spent with J. in Golden Beach in the last month of last year: “Love, like so many other things that make life worth the bother of being in the world, is a willful fiction, anchored on and realized in concrete, everyday practices. In an object-world devoid of inherent value, meaning-making is a matter of mythopoesis.”

If love occurs as a function of meaning-making, then it is imperative to remember that this labor is constant. Because circumstances change, because mere feeling is fleeting, because what is real and true and beautiful here, right now, may be gone in a minute.

As to why this labor must be done and redone — how do we decide what anything or anyone is worth?



The people I find beautiful, I find beautiful not because they conform to any aesthetic standard, but because I’ve decided that I like them. When I want to find someone beautiful, I look them in the eye, I attend to the timbre of their voice, I call them by their name, I learn what makes, what could make, them smile. The people I don’t care about, I often fail to see, because I require a reason for looking.


No one would accuse me of having fallen in love with handsome men, but every person I have wanted, I’d imagined was the objective correlative of my desire. I look long to see more of what I could find interesting, believing that, as with the books I keep, every reading would reveal something I hadn’t considered — especially since a man, unlike a book, doesn’t stay put. In a sense, it is possible to love many different persons in one, changing body in the course of a lifetime.



Lately, I have been taking photographs more than I have been writing “creatively,” whatever that means. I feel, less than ever, the need to process my inner life, which, these days, is as serene as an aquarium, disturbed only by little fishies of anxiety relating to my thesis. No Sturm und Drang for me. I must be on the way to becoming halaman.


John Berger in Ways of Seeing: Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.



Things I don’t fail to see: the sky, flowering plants, trees, dogs in the street, bodies of water, the way concrete buildings change color depending on the time of the day. This is how I photosynthesize pleasure in the succession of days unremarkable for their similarity — by fishing an image out of the river of sense-perception.


As I have taken to taking photographs daily, I am realizing how the apprehension of beauty is not about vision but selection and composition — deciding what is worth paying attention to, from which standpoint to gaze, what to put in the frame, what to leave out, what kind of light or color resonates a certain feeling — choices that rest on the structure of sentiments that shape the perception and understanding of the seeing I/eye. The aesthete approaches life and meaning-making cognizant of the power of selection and composition, of image, interpretation, narrative. The aesthete lives everyday life as curatorial practice — she chooses what to keep in her room, in her closet, in her pantry, in her contact list, in her thoughts. She knows why and what for.



Solmaz Sharif: Let me LOOK at you. Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.


Instead of wondering whether someone looks at me the way I look at the world, I look at the world, and yield these treasures of my inwardness, even if they matter to no eye but my own.