Third

I arrive in our house in the province late on Wednesday night. Before I can even cross the threshold of our house, my youngest brother runs at full speed from where he is inside, colliding with me at the doorway and wrapping me in a welcoming hug.

One of my favorite people in the world is this little boy who happens to be my brother. He is 9, turning 10, which means pretty soon he’ll start puberty. I was in high school when he was born. My favorite memory of him as a baby goes like this: I was asked to watch over him, and as I lay there beside him tired in every way, he wrapped his tiny hand around my finger. Sometimes it’s the littlest things at just the right time that break us. I cried then. I don’t remember why, but I remember thinking I wanted to love this kid well.

Thursday as I’m lying on our bed avoiding homework, he comes and he wraps me in a hug for no real reason. Later as he sits there watching videos on the tablet, I snuggle near and he does not push me away.

Sometimes when we spend time together I become very aware of the possibility that I might not have too much of this left. On Friday night we go swimming, and as we’re uselessly floating around on the shallow end of the pool, I wonder how long he’ll need us to be around because he’s too scared and too small to wade into deeper waters. One of these days he’ll probably be taller than I am. Will he still want to float around uselessly with me then?

I consider how perhaps he’ll grow up like my other brother, now 17. Years ago, on a February day, he asked me where to buy flowers. I wonder if our youngest will one day ask me the same question, or if he’ll ask his older brother instead. I wonder how soon it’ll be until he finds someone he wants to give roses to, and I wonder how soon it’ll be until I can no longer sleep beside him and in the morning reach out and stroke his hair, kiss his forehead, without him thinking I’m so weird.

One of my greatest anxieties over high school and college, living miles away from home, was that maybe I’d miss seeing my little brother grow up, the way I missed being there for a lot of my other siblings. Distance does that, and I was too young then to realize it was happening, and even when I did I didn’t know what to do about it. Perhaps part of me half-expects his love to wane with every leaving. After all, I’ve always been the sister least present in his life. But every time I come home, instead he still loves me the same. Children’s hearts are so kind to our failures. Even when we can’t give enough their love meets us right where we are.

As we’re pulling in to the bus terminal, I kiss him goodbye. He hugs me tight, kisses me again, hugs me even tighter. I ask myself, at what point will it become routine for him to expect departures and distance?

He doesn’t let go even when I finally, gently start pulling away. When he finally loosens his hold, he only asks, “When are you coming back?”

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Proximity

My workmate taught us the first law of geography is this: everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things. An example: every minute there are 105 deaths all over the world, a life passing and arriving in every breath. Always in a moment there is celebration and mourning. Yet my life for the most part revolves around this small expanse of a few provinces, preoccupied by the stories of the people around me and those I love most.

I’ve often wondered how much of my relationships are a function of proximity. Always and always, when I consider the people I’ve met, I think of what blessing it is to have found each other. Now and then, though, I also think about how easy it would be for things to fall away.

Nearness gives us the benefit of perceived closeness: it’s straightforward, for the most part, to build a relationship with someone you spend your days with. Conversations eventually accumulate, memories are made whether or not you deliberately try.

Distance, on the other hand, demands intent. We’re short-sighted, and from a distance even what used to be the biggest things in our lives seem to blur. A best friend becomes a stranger, and when she comes back we pretend to resume from where we left off despite the fact that so much sits in between us, or not enough does, and for a while it seems like we’re back where we hoped we’d be but the truth is that we’re stories away while beside each other.

Even so, right now there are people important to me that make me believe it’s okay to occupy space in their lives. Sometimes I wonder whether that’s enough for me, to know that at least for a while I mattered enough that we could put our weight on a hope that a shared future exists. I think about how it might hurt later, to have a list of places we hoped to go to together, to expect to be there to witness each other’s milestones, to tell ourselves these friendships will last, to risk being sure of something.

Because eventually there is leaving. Divergence perhaps is inevitable: all roads lead to goodbyes because life proceeds, or because it ends.

For now, though, today’s joy precludes tomorrow’s potential for pain. Maybe it’s true that this is all we’ll ever have of each other. But if so, perhaps that is all the more reason to take whatever today can give and to give whatever there is of us today. If we’ll lose all this eventually, then let me hold tight today.

Let me leave the door open knowing people could walk out any day.

Let me leave the door open and let me come home to realize that there are people who would choose to stay anyway.

Because all I can be right now is right here. The future is still far away. What’s near is the way she says this friendship feels like home; videos of cute dogs when he thinks I might be tired; cookies on a Monday; the warmth of good morning hugs. What’s near is the way he reminds me I’m brighter than I am. Watching the moon change color together.

Everything is related to everything else, and eventually maybe pain will be the nearest thing, if we let it. But for now the terrifying thought of loss is eclipsed by the nearness of so much joy.

On Broken Loves

1.

It’s nearing the end of the year and people have had a few drinks and we are eating chips around the pantry table. I reach for seaweed-flavored Lays as people talk about engagements and relationships that fell through. Someone mentions a parent. Eventually the conversation shifts to broken families, and how you carry that brokenness with you, a perpetual shadow over all your relationships.

2.

In my third year of high school we were asked to write a non-fiction essay, and I wrote about marriage and how I didn’t believe in it.

3.

My friend told me that the other weekend he was watching his dad at their place of business as he melted gold and he was reminded how, as a kid, that place was a cool place for him because his dad was in it. He was my hero, he said. He told me about how busy and tired his dad must have been, how he’d come home and go straight to bed for a nap, how despite everything he always had enough energy to be their father. He said, one day I hope to be the same kind of dad as him. I was reminded he still is my hero.

I think about what blessing it must be to have someone to whose love you can aspire to.

4.

We are comfortably seated on couches, maybe eating yogurt, and my friends and I come to a conversation about kids. Someone asks whether we’re planning to have any. A friend says he’s not because he’s accepted he’d screw them up. Someone says yes, probably. Another tells us how his only fear is that he’ll fail to give his child the kind of life he didn’t have: that maybe his child will grow up struggling financially, weighed down by the same kind of expectations he’s had to bear. What is hope for other people is fear for others: that we’ll arrive at a point where we realize all we are is all our parents were for us.

5.

I’m seated in the passenger seat as he drives. It’s nearing midnight. Both of us are tired and drowsy. He tells me how he never really knew what being a parent meant, much less a father. His mother paid more attention to his siblings, and his father only left him a legacy of vices. Your mother was the one who taught me, he says, most of what being a father meant.

I picture a young woman trying to teach a man how to love. I think about that man and who he grows to become, and how that hurts her but on good days maybe makes her proud. I think about that man and who he grows to become, and how he’s doing the best he can, struggling towards a kind of love he doesn’t know the face of.

6.

Someone asks, “Do you come from a broken family, too?” Broken here meaning separated parents. Separation here a legal term, or else a physical distance. Different surnames, different addresses, civil status single or divorced.

7.

I used to write letters to a future husband. I’ve written maybe a handful over the course of the two decades of my life. Mostly to document a just in case: just in case you exist, I wanted to let you know I look forward to worship with you. Or: just in case you’ll read this one day, I’ve been thinking these days about how promises endure. These days I see little children and consider laughter, and now and then the possibility of having a small being with large eyes and tiny hands to love, one day, maybe. And even though sometimes I’m not really sure if I could have the kind of love that would be enough, most days I am reminded of grace and its sufficiency.

8.

And I mean, it’s different for everyone. Most of the time I think I’m one of the lucky ones. Because when he texts me suddenly good morning, I love you, I know I have more than many could ask. Because when she cooks me a feast for dinner and spends time to wash the white clothes I haphazardly mix with my colored clothes when I do my laundry until they sparkle white again, I remember the quiet ordinariness that loving in service looks like.

It doesn’t change the fact that once I had to sit there and watch them fight and then both break down. For better or for worse an accusation. A grown man asking a teenager, Why am I always the failure? with so much pain. A grown woman telling the same teenager about all the ways she feels she’s lacked for the people she’s loved. And two people she should be relying on crying, slurring, asking her questions she doesn’t have answers to. That no one has answers to.

Still in the morning they woke up in the same bed, tired perhaps from tears and anger. And neither of them apologized for feeling what they felt or saying what they said, but maybe forgiveness isn’t always so tender.

Because maybe love should be greater, but maybe there’s room also for our imperfect loves. Because I think it must be blessing, too, to aspire to love as much as our brokenness will allow. To have someone show us what brokenness looks like, how to strive to love despite it. To believe that there is Love enough for all the other spaces.

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.

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.