A month ago, I was lying on my side in the half-light, on the floor, sleepless past one a.m., having just said goodbye to a friend I wouldn’t see for a year, maybe more. At two a.m., I got a text from another friend: Was I okay? Was I in UP? I told her I was home, asked her what was up. FC’s burning! was what she said.
I went on Facebook and found my newsfeed streaming photos in black, orange, red. I messaged my colleagues, got up and dressed and ran to the corner street and hailed a cab to UP at three a.m. — only to find my office in flames, with everything inside it already razed with the plywood walls.
There was nothing I could do but stand with my colleagues, hugging each other as our offices continued to burn. At half-past six a.m., when we thought the fire had died, we walked to Katipunan to eat and begin tracing the outlines of all that we had, until a mere six hours ago, lost.
The office I shared with Ma’am C. was on the second floor, on the side near the supposed source of the fire. All that it left us were ashes.
Things lost in the fire: about a hundred books, many of which are the dearest in my possession (Atwood, Boully, Camus, Critchley, Cruz, De Beauvoir, Donne, Eco, Foucault, Frye, Gamble, Glück, Heidegger, Le Guin, Kant, Kennedy, Nehring, Nietzsche, Plath, Plato, Polanyi, Shakespeare, Szymborska, Wallace, Wittgenstein, etc.; several Norton anthologies and other readers), my Giant Expressway folding bike and helmet, running shoes, lecture notes, annotated journal articles and other research materials, notebooks dating back to my college days whose contents I never got to digitize, important documents and certificates, student papers and records, letters and artwork from students and friends.
Much has been written on the significance of the Faculty Center / Bulwagang Rizal, not only to lives of the professors and other staff and students, to the fight for state support of higher education or to the intellectual and cultural heritage of UP, but also to the history of the nation. But being a relatively new member of the faculty of the College of Arts and Letters, I mourned mostly for my books and notes (all the notes and research materials for a paper I’m working on! Instructional materials and class notes!), the recovery and reconstruction of which would take much work, time, and money. Also my bike, which I’d acquired last year and hadn’t even managed to ride outside the campus.
Nonetheless, the personal loss is bearable; what was devastating was seeing the faculty, staff, and students agonizing over decades’ worth of research, archives, artifacts, theater props and musical instruments, computers and other electronics and equipment, entire libraries, means of livelihood. I never saw so many profs in tears. And then of course we’re all displaced, with no offices of our own, scant resources and facilities; classes in the affected buildings were also suspended for over a week, resulting in delays and difficulties in teaching.
But, as I told a former student, shit sometimes happens, life always goes on, so we have to find ways to spin with a mad world, find spaces for slowing down in the midst of frantic recovery. The week right after the fire, I attended public lectures, dined with colleagues and old friends, read books, tried to understand why hungry farmers in Kidapawan could be gunned down with such impunity. I slept too much, walked alone a lot, bought office supplies and new copies of books I needed for class. I felt tired. I felt empty. I felt grateful for the outpouring of support and sympathy from friends, students, strangers.
I know that most of the things I lost can be replaced. Those that can’t be replaced, I will soon forget. The fire reminded me that we were born with nothing, and in the end, all that we adore will turn to dust and ash, whether we like it or not.
I’m at peace with that.