Things we lost in the fire

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.

In mid-February I traveled eight hours to sit by the sea

“I am unhappy. Father,” I said. “I have loved this town and the people in it. I have drunk them down with delight. But they have some poison in them which I cannot stand. If I think of them now, I vomit up my soul. Do you know of a cure for me?”

“Why yes,” he said, “I know a cure for everything. Salt water.”

“Salt water?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said, “in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.”

– Isak Dinesen, from “The Deluge at Norderney” in Seven Gothic Tales (1934)

 

In mid-February I traveled eight hours to sit by the sea, hoping to float, baggage-free, along the horizon. Instead, I spent that weekend reading books and articles on wasted lives, the politics of disposability, human rights, and the death zones of humanity. I read up on the Ampatuan Massacre, I read up on the killings of the Davao Death Squad. I wound up V-Day singing saksak-puso-senti songs on karaoke with strangers at midnight in a hipster pasta place in a gentrified surf town.

I have run the gamut of saline solutions. But sadness, like seawater, is a renewable resource.

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Lessons from my early twenties: Never assign a central position in your emotional life to someone who treats you as if you were dispensable. It takes a while to arrive back to where you were, and distance to see clearly through saltwater.

Retropost: On “Governing Informality”

A version of the following was first posted as a Facebook status update on April 21, 2015.

Today in Eng10 we discussed “Governing informalities: Street vendors and social order making in Metro Manila” by Wataru Kusaka. Kusaka, whom I met at a conference about “global commons,” has written a book (in Japanese) on “Anti-Civic Politics,” which will be published in English within a year or so. In this book he analyzed  the informal security practices of the urban poor and other members of “uncivil society.” These informal institutions include palakasan (clientelism), lagayan (bribery), paluwagan (resource-sharing), bulungan (gossip/sharing of insider information), and pakikisama (compliance/complicity) in the context of a weak state.

His paper “Governing Informalities,” from the anthology The Politics of Change in the Philippines (Anvil, 2010), examines how the poor (whose agency is often discounted by many studies in political science that focus on such dominant actors as local elites and civic organizations) resist oppressive and exploitative institutions and dominant actors in the social order, but, by the same gesture, reinforce the very institutions that oppress them, since they employ informal/illegal strategies for negotiating with the dominant social order rather than pursue legitimate strategies for social reform (like lobbying and legislation), because this necessarily long and arduous struggle is obstructed not only by corrupt government authorities, but also by the poor’s more pressing concerns for mere survival.

In this light, the author argues that the state and civil society, or actors in the public and private sectors should work together to “create conditions that enable the poor to pursue social reform projects for their long-term interests and refrain from trying to secure their immediate interests through informal means,” rather than punish the poor for practices like street vending and informal settling, or perpetuate negative biases against the poor for not cooperating in state projects that threaten to destroy their livelihoods without helping to empower them in the legitimate pursuit of their interests.

While I appreciate the paper’s structure and the concise and illustrative writing by which the author concretizes his analytic framework, supports his claims, and justifies his conclusions, what I like most about this paper is how it humanizes and empathizes with a basic sector of society whose lives those who are more privileged often take for granted as disposable. (It is telling that during the 2002-2004 rallies against the violent street-clearing policies by then MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando, a.k.a. that guy who painted Metro Manila a disgusting shade of sky blue and baby pink, a common slogan of street vendor protesters was “Hindi kami basura.”) It behooves the reader to imagine how it is to fight daily for the conditions of one’s existence and interrogate assumptions about the poor as lawless parasites feeding off hardworking taxpayers (when, actually, they are triply taxed, formally by the local and national governments, and informally by corrupt officials who extort bribes). Furthermore, the author contextualizes their struggle within political, economic, and cultural systems that perpetuate inequality, and argues that the empowerment of the poor is essential to eradicating corrupt institutions, and should thus be undertaken not as a project of charity, but of democracy.