When I was younger—in grade school, I suppose—I used to lie in bed and wear out my wakefulness in prayer. I addressed my prayers to God, though I prayed then for the reason I write now—to clarify thought by putting it in words, essentially by talking to myself. My prayers always included an accounting of my day: what went down and how I felt about that, what I wanted to remember and what to forget. Of course, I eventually forgot most everything I talked about in those dark hours, but what was important to me was the rounding up of events at the close of each day, so I could sleep believing that the next morning would be worth getting up for. So no matter how shitty my day was, I would always think of at least five things to feel grateful about. Often I had little more to say than, “My crush led the ‘Panatang Makabayan’ at this morning’s assembly at school,” or, “I liked the biscuits my mom put in my lunchbox.” Though I had a taste for the obviously momentous, I tried to find significance in the mundane. I wanted things to round up, because I thought that that was how it was supposed to be, that that was what life was for—something always to be happy about.
As I got older and lost faith in certain things, like my Catholic God, the inherent goodness of life, the evilness of swearing, and the effervescent pronouncements of Rays of Fucking Sunshine, I lost the habit of praying. More to the point, I lost the habit of gratefulness. I clung to writing for thinking things through, but I no longer thought that things had to round up. When Shit Happened, well, then, C’est la vie. Maybe cry yourself to exhaustion or deal out as hard as you got, and then Whatevs or So, moving on… For senseless, sordid things happened even to sensible, decent people, and who said life—so short, so small—had ultimate value anyway? I kept on living because I was already here and it would take too much trouble to pick the quick way out, and I did my best because I hated to be found wanting, but I felt wronged just for being made to be, for having to bear the bother of pointless existence.
A few years ago I read a book titled The Elegance of the Hedgehog by a French philosopher and academic, Muriel Barbery. One of the characters was a smart, rich little girl named Paloma, who early on apprehended that life had no inherent meaning, that her privileged existence was set and empty, and that her bourgeois family and their social circles were petty and pretentious, and so resolved to off herself on the day she turned thirteen. But then she became friends with Renée, the eponymous Hedgehog, a dumpy and curmudgeonly woman who was the concierge of their luxury apartment building in Paris and who turned out to have read widely in literature and philosophy though she was not formally educated. She frequently quoted Tolstoy and Husserl, appreciated Japanese art and cinema, listened to opera, and lived a life of quiet grace beneath a veneer of uncouth poverty. In Renée’s company Paloma thought that maybe she would not mind living a bit longer.
It was a book I wish I’d read as a teenager, when I brooded upon the very same thoughts as did Paloma, convinced in that pompous way of the just-growing-up that everything was both significant and worthless (i.e. stupid): I didn’t make it to the honor roll this quarter, I don’t deserve to live; my parents are fighting again, I will never get married, marriage is such an oppressive institution; my dog died, my uncle died, my grandfather died, life demands so much grief and trouble, then ends in nothing. And, later, post-high school: “What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? … All things are wearisome, more than one can say.”
By the end of the book, Paloma was still convinced that life had no meaning. So she resolved to create meaning in her life instead of snuffing out all chance of an ecstatic existence.
More than one person who reads pieces I have written has remarked that I seem like a depressed and troubled person, though I fashion my sadness in pretty sentences. To be sure, my dominant mood is melancholy, and I find beauty in loneliness. I think that I am most intensely myself in my writing, because in writing I form my identity. Even so, it presents a rather unilateral image of myself, for I do not write when I am happy. I write to think things through, to intensify then neutralize emotion by examining it as an object, drawn out of the self and splayed on a blank page for dissection. Happiness, I prefer to live through, not think about. In writing I preserve not only a fluid yet largely consistent, constructed self, but also memory. Since what I don’t write down, I tend to forget, I do not remember that I am often happy. I retain the milestones, the big triumphs, but all the little things that make the long days not only bearable but pleasant, I lose. It would take me a while to come up with ten things that make me smile, or to describe in vivid detail a day in the past year that made me think that life is wonderful.
Next year I’ll keep a happybank: when something makes me smile, I’ll note the when and the who or what and the why on a scrap of paper, drop it into a glass jar. Then at the end of the year, or maybe when I am broody, angry, or sad, I’ll open the jar and read the notes, and maybe I’ll find more mindspace for grace and gratefulness.
It is an hour to the end of the last day of the year as I type this sentence. I have written this whole essay in my phone. I am lying in bed in the dark beside a sleeping friend with whom I have climbed mountains, crossed seas, read books, and sipped coffee. We are spending the night and greeting the new year in the house of strangers used to hosting intrepid travelers in this part of the Cordilleras. I can hear the preparations for the midnight feast in the kitchen a few steps from our room—water trickling from the faucet or sloshing in the metal washbasin, dishes, ladles, and pans clattering, the voices of women giving instructions. The TV is off. In the living room, the men and children are chatting in a language I don’t understand. I miss my little brother and sisters, but I am glad to be away from all the noise and glare and smog and trash with which people in my city celebrate a dying year.
Tomorrow, in the first morning of the new year, my friend and I are hiking to a tribal village to meet the country’s last traditional tattoo artist. I may or may not submit to pain and have my skin marked with thorn and ink. I may or may not finish writing a novel in the coming year, or teach my students something of lasting worth, or lose fifteen pounds and grow my hair long, or travel to Burma, or learn how to bike, or submit a paper for a conference or publication, or let the one I love know. But I am thankful for the past year that has given me so many things to look forward to, and though I have my familiar worries and goals to plod through in the next twelve months (and probably for the rest of my life), I am hopeful.