Alternate Universe

A few weeks back I joined an event by invitation of our Chief Analytics Officer. It was attended by a diverse set of people: former executives, young CEOs, founders of non-profits, and a few university students, to name a few, from fields like tech, marketing, business, and education. The goal was to create and foster meaningful connections and conversations within the intersections of our passions. We talked about restlessness and calling, of where we were and where we felt led to. Someone said then, referring to the character of the interactions and the shared desire to do something worthwhile: “I feel like being in this room with these people is like being in an alternative universe.”

It often feels as though I’ve been placed in a series of alternate universes. When I think about the people I’ve met and the kinds of communities and groups I’ve found myself part of, I’m always amazed by how seemingly lucky it was to have found those spaces. For example: the college programming varsity, a collection of nerds with a mutual love for food and code, who would willingly slave away eight hours a week to solve problems for fun. Another: recently I arrived at work, and one of the first things I said to my officemates was, “What does ‘Lord of hosts’ mean?” We discussed this over the pantry table before we began our workday. Over the past few weeks we’ve had conversations on everything from passion, intentionality, the Trinity, and spiritual gifts to pineapples, dead rats, and toilet misadventures.

In one such conversation, he said: “Salvation is grace upon grace.” So is life, I think.

There is a perpetual restlessness, but these days I am no longer anxious about where I am. I told her once, “[The man who begs Jesus in Mark 5:18] reminds me of the yearning to go where He goes, but also of how to stay and build homes with other people that testify to His love and greatness wherever we already are. Even if it isn’t always comfortable.”

Every step of the way is faithfulness. There are so many ways we could have gone and could go still, yet here we are. Isn’t this also a blessing?

My sister, after hanging out with one of my friends, said to me: “Ang refreshing niyang kasama. He’s one of those dying breeds.” When I asked her to elaborate she said she hadn’t met someone like that in a long time. I paused, pondered this quietly, and said simply, “Parang marami naman akong kilala.” She responded, “Iba naman kasi friends mo eh.

Like these: when we meet again after two months, we talk about work briefly, but we quickly move from small talk to discussions on claustrophobic spaces, undesirable living arrangements, and strange mannerisms. They are inconsequential, unremarkable conversations: but how could we ever forget laughter? Monday first thing in the morning he approaches and says, “I brought you sandwich spreads.” Without warning and from miles away she sends me a selfie of herself making a funny face. The first time we see each other in over a year the first words he says to me are: “Still breathtaking.”

The relationships are honest and simple. When I doubt my decisions, I think of all the possible lives where I didn’t meet the people I’ve met: lit geeks who’d spend hours discussing poetry, workmates who’d teach me about reflectance and depreciation and SKUs, friends who would understand my metaphors without my needing to explain them. The imagined world is always a little less bright.

Sometimes it feels as though I’ve been placed in a series of alternate universes. But the truth is that of the many possible futures, I occupy this one. These alternate universes are my reality, and the thought of that overwhelms me with joy. Grace renders every morning full of light.

I think of Moses calling out, Lord, here am I.

How beautiful it is here.

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Blood and Needles

One of my earliest memories of blood is my sister holding a tabo under her nose, red fluid gushing freely. I am maybe five, and she is sitting on a leather chair.

Of needles, I recall first grade in I–Adelfa. I am seatmates with a slightly chubby kid who is teaching me how to poke a safety pin through my skin. Pushing in the pin and seeing it emerge from another section of one’s thigh or arm seemed fascinating to the smaller version of me, back when I didn’t even know what tetanus was. There was an odd satisfaction to the pin prick and the unsettling feeling of sliding the needle through a thin layer of skin.

Maybe the satisfaction was in that it made me feel cooler than the other girls, who were too disgusted to try it (and, in retrospect, with good reason). That’s how it was, after all, growing up female, or at least growing up female for me: some part of me was constantly trying to prove I was tougher than typical, which is also probably why for most of grade school I intimidated many of the boys in class, fought often with a boy who was always teasing me, and avoided an association with “girly things” like skirts and pink and glitter (even though in second and third grade I asked my parents for Barbies if I got into the honor roll, which I’d never have admitted to the guys back then—)

A small part of me thinks I still carry that with me, the child who thinks she has to be tougher than typical if she is going to survive the world. The grown-up part says it is fine to be vulnerable, to let other people take care of you, that these too are a form of strength. But I’m still growing into that version of myself. It is difficult to learn softness.

For a few days back when I was in my sophomore year of high school the cartilage along my nose bridge was scarred, so my nose would bleed multiple times a day until I could finally get it checked.

Somewhere in my hazy recollection, we were in our CAD class when I got a nosebleed. In our house people just say, “Nosebleed?” in acknowledgment, and sometimes they don’t even bother handing you the tissue or a handkerchief. There, in the house I grew up in, nosebleeding was fact of life rather than cause for concern. Hence, it didn’t matter much to me. But two friends bolted to the cafeteria to get me the coldest bottled water there was, asking me if I was alright, was I sure, did I need anything else?

I am still outgrowing that child, the one who continues to struggle letting herself be loved. To give graciously, but also to receive gratefully—these are things that I aspire to.

Room

  1. On the days I am left to myself, everything around me becomes a point of reflection.
  2. A room is only a room until examined, after which it becomes a reminder of the life I am living, the life I am not.
  3. In the sink are unwashed dishes, in the garbage bin empty tuna cans, food wrappers, eggshells, blood-soaked tissue.
  4. Taking care of myself is a conscious choice, and on the days I don’t think, or think too much, I devolve to whatever’s most convenient.
  5. The sin of self-sufficiency means I desire to be held but refuse to let anyone hold me.
  6. The sin of pride means I can’t admit to my God how I depend on him but only up to so much; I am perhaps afraid to be held so completely.
  7. Atop my table and in my small drawer are books and a journal and pieces of paper with words from other people. These words are both comforting and painful to me.
  8. For example, he says, you have always been so kind.
  9. I look at the cut-out letters spelling give near the head of my bed.
  10. It is a pleasure to see you reinvent yourself. I do not feel reinvented.
  11. Phototropism meaning, to grow in response to sunlight.
  12. Meanwhile the question: Quo vadis, Leona?
  13. I look at the painting on my wall, the one I couldn’t finish because I was scared I’d ruin the painting by continuing. There are spindly trees reaching upward. No flowers grow on them. There is an expanse of blues and so many stars, an entire night sky with no birds in flight.
  14. How often have I settled for something good because I was afraid of falling short of something more beautiful?
  15. She says, you always do a good job. I think: I know, and yet I am so far away from brilliant.
  16. I like words because they are simple to hold on to: for example, the word enough.
  17. How fickle the heart is: one moment in love with the people and the work and the promise and the next so tired.
  18. Some days I spend mostly asleep, hoping when I wake up I believe in the world again.

Guadalupe Nuevo

  1. The mornings allow me slowness.
  2. At least for now.
  3. My alarm goes off in between sunrise and brightness: soft sunlight streams in through the windows. The kind with no warmth. I pull my blanket closer to my body.
  4. From my side of the road, EDSA is still subdued, but I am certain people are already gathering in the bus stops on the other side.
  5. The water flows weakly, so using the shower head requires pressing your body against the wall. Maybe it is just my ineptitude. The restroom sink is practically useless.
  6. I pretend at keeping a journal. Mostly I write about things I am afraid to forget, things I would like to. Sometimes prayers.
  7. Walking would be peaceful if not for smoke: cars along Kalayaan, cigarette smoke from other pedestrians. I wonder how long to kill my lungs.

  1. Going home feels unnatural. The pedestrian lanes I cross are different. The line to the bus is replaced by a short line for the tricycle. Small talk replaced by silence. The sound of approaching trains replaced by the thrum of the motorcycle engine.
  2. They were never really small to me.
  3. I have yet to explore my dinner options. So far: the convenience store at the corner, the bakery in front, the carinderia two streets away.
  4. Having a bed frame is great. There is space below the bed for shoes, small bags, cartolina, plastic bags; a space to tuck away clutter out of sight. Empty space is relaxing.
  5. At night the view is of high-rise buildings outlined by yellow lights. I imagine a photograph would be beautiful.
  6. I’ve yet to clean the glass windows thoroughly. From my bed the world is still a little blurry.

Right Choices

Follow up post to Life Decisions.

As we are pulling in to the basement parking of our office building, our CEO asks me, “How do you like your job?”

Momentarily I wonder how he expects me to answer.

I tell him “it’s good.” He acknowledges this with a low “mmm.” I realize that while brief, and true, my answer is incomplete, and though I hesitate for a while and think about how vulnerable honesty will make me, I decide there is nothing for me to lose (rather, that I don’t mind risking it).

So I add that when my friends ask me that question I answer: “The workload is tough, but I like the work and the people are interesting.” He says he is glad, and I know he means it.

We exit the car, and as we wait for the elevator, we talk about how my parents felt about me joining the company. I tell him I just submitted a 20-page report on the decision. When I informed my parents I had decided to take this offer instead of the other one, they had asked of me two essays, so I went ahead and wrote them 20 pages. He laughs at this and asks me how they reacted. I admit to him I was too scared to find out, so I gave it right before I caught the bus back to Manila.

We get on the elevator. He asks whether the salary difference was significant. I tell him yes. I laugh, tell him I actually used my math skills to compute all of the deductions from taxes and government contributions and found out that with the annual difference in financial compensation, I could have paid for a semester of my sister’s tuition and more.

This surprises him (briefly I wonder why, because when he was offering the job he’d already asked me about it, but perhaps he hadn’t realized what the money translated to until I valued it relative to my sister’s education—) and he says to me, “Thank you for being here, then.” A pause. “What was the decision point?”

I tell him there were too many. 20 pages worth, to be exact. We laugh and the elevator doors open to the 10th floor. We are only a few steps away from our office door when he asks, “Was it the right choice?”

I smile. Wonder whether I should just say yes. Instead I tell him back when I was struggling to figure out what to do my friend said to me: “In your case, there isn’t a wrong decision.”

We push the doors open. The afternoon sunlight streams in through the wide glass windows of our office. I don’t know about rightness, but sometimes there are moments. I remember Carver, those same lines that keep repeating in my head:

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

Buendia

One of my favorite road signs is the one for private vehicles near Buendia—wag nang gumitgit, makakarating din tayo. Every day on the 12-peso bus ride to work I pass by this reminder. Some days I look out the window at just the right time. Assurance for the commute, assurance for the moment-to-moment living: makakarating din tayo.

Company

company-definition

Meaning this business. Meaning this organization I chose to be part of, meaning the people. Meaning their presence and my presence, together, meaning this contentment. From the Old French compagnie, meaning “society, friendship, intimacy; body of soldiers.” The tenderness of an offered cake, childhood stories during the van ride back, lunch break considerations. Meaning slight glimpses into each other’s lives: a tendon that never healed right, thoughts on the presidency, Indian dance lessons, cab driver stories, on his epitaph only He was the best dad. Meaning to fight together with a vision for the country, or to fight our own battles for our own reasons but side by side. Possibly incidental interactions to living our own lives. Nevertheless, the beauty of more than one definition. That there is some intersection.