29 February 2012

Cabinets and Street Maps

The [research] suggested that every time we think about the past we are delicately transforming its cellular representation in the brain, changing its underlying neural circuitry. It was a stunning discovery: Memories are not formed and then pristinely maintained, as neuroscientists thought; they are formed and then rebuilt every time they're accessed. "The brain isn't interested in having a perfect set of memories about the past," [neuroscientist Joseph] LeDoux says. "Instead, memory comes with a natural updating mechanism, which is how we make sure that the information taking up valuable space inside our head is still useful. That might make our memories less accurate, but it probably also makes them more relevant to the future" (Lehrer, 2012).


I read this just as I'm asking myself why I happen to remember you right now, and why the remembering doesn't feel the way it once did. What anger is left is small and hard, no bigger than a fist. What pain is left is more cerebral; You don't feel angry because he, that person in particular, treated you that way, I tell myself. You feel angry because no one deserves to be treated that way. No one. Definitely not you.

For some reason, though, I can't help remembering now the way you fudged details. Three specific, related incidents stand out in my memory:

  1. "I think your friend had a crush on me back then," you once said to me, and we both laughed.
  2. "Her friend was in love with me," you once boasted, and your friends laughed.
  3. "I was surprised when he started going out with her. I kept getting the feeling he had a crush on me," my friend said, and the two of us shrugged.

Was it your memory, or something else?


Once you start questioning the reality of memory, things fall apart pretty quickly. So many of our assumptions about the human mind—what it is, why it breaks, and how it can be healed—are rooted in a mistaken belief about how experience is stored in the brain. ... We want the past to persist, because the past gives us permanence. It tells us who we are and where we belong. But what if your most cherished recollections are also the most ephemeral thing in your head?


Some changes were innocuous—the stories got tighter and the narratives more coherent—but other adjustments involved a wholesale retrofit. ... Over and over, the act of repeating the narrative seemed to corrupt its content. ... "What's most troubling, of course, is that these people have no idea their memories have changed this much," [psychologist Elizabeth Phelps] says. "The strength of the emotion makes them convinced it's all true, even when it's clearly not" (Lehrer, 2012).


All this time, I've been slightly panicked over memory. I have to remember this, I tell myself at important moments. I have to cast this in metal and then store this behind a bulletproof glass cabinet. It must remain intact, for me to view whenever I want, whenever I need it again.

If only I'd known, reviewing only sometimes polishes but also often destroys. Memory can be destroyed by the very act of remembering.

I think of the green of the leaves back home, the sight of my old house from my best friend's backyard, the carpet of yellow petals on the old driveway, the position of a plastic glow-in-the-dark Orion on my cabinet door—if families pack up and move, if buildings get old and fall down, if new buildings are put up in their place, if trees grow taller and bushes grow thinner, if photos fade or get deleted, and not even my own memory can be trusted, then what have I got left? What have I got left when remembering risks a horrible, grossly unintended self-betrayal?

I just want to remember.


This is a link to "Paris, at Night," by Sung. J. Woo. It is my favorite story about memory and possibly my favorite short story of all time. I think about it whenever I think about memory.


"Memory is like a million little houses" (Woo, 2009).

I don't want my neural neighborhood to change. I want to be able to recognize the streets and the people who live there. I'm only 24; this should be the worry of a 60-year-old lady at risk for Alzheimer's, but it isn't.


This is the Natividad Building on Escolta, in old Manila. It used to be green.

This is the Regina Building, also on Escolta. It used to have just three stories, wooden revolving windows, and an open-air corridor on top.

And still, I want them preserved.


Lehrer, J. (2012). The forgetting pill erases painful memories forever. Wired Magazine, vol. 20 no. 3. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/magazine/2012/02/ff_forgettingpill/all/1

Woo, S.J. (2009). Paris, at night. Retrieved from http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/PariNigh735.shtml

24 February 2012


Me at a recent college reunion. That's my old friend Edwin in the background.

I love my short hair, even on the days it sticks up in the back or falls limp into my face and makes me look like a small boy. It's actually made me more comfortable with my general lack of femininity, or just my aversion to all things to do with looking anything like this:

The Stepford Wives (2004, Paramount Pictures)

It also has the strange effect of making me feel even girlier whenever I do wear a skirt or dress.

I suddenly understand why the girls on America's Next Top Model cry in pain whenever they get drastic haircuts, only in my case, it was a drastic haircut that helped me to feel stronger. In getting my hair cut, I've pulled on the still-strange armor of being all myself.


I'm finally free to move out of Cubao. I thought this day would never come, but here I am, browsing listings and checking commute routes.

I'm planning to move to Makati because the neighborhood's nicer, but the length of the commute and the fact that I'll be heading for Quezon City 5-6 times a week gives me second thoughts. The main reason I had for choosing Makati was that my brother may decide to share the apartment at any time, and it would actually be more convenient for the both of us if I moved south than if he moved north. I just hope the commute doesn't wear me down all that much.

I was thinking of moving to Ermita, just for the proximity to so many things of historical interest. It had been one dream when I was still in college imagining the fantastic life I would have in my 20s, and I learned the other year that it was just one long ride to the office (compared with the two or three rides I'd take from almost anywhere else). Sadly, my friends who actually live in Ermita say that it's noisy, crowded, polluted, and flood-prone; if they had a choice, they'd live elsewhere.

Cubao has turned me off to the idea of Quezon City in general. While Katipunan and probably Teacher's Village may prove to be the exceptions, I'm kind of annoyed by the kids who go to my alma mater today and would rather not be surrounded by them at the end of a long day. Yep, I've become one of those cranky alumnae who think the lower batches are out of their minds.

Where else? The area around my office is actually not so bad, but I would actually like some physical distance from work.

So, Makati it is, I guess.

Things I am looking forward to getting: a new mattress (the one I have has been bleeding foam for months, and not in easy-to-restuff chunks, but in particles), more bookshelves, a bigger cabinet, and a table and chairs. In my current cramped space, I work on the bed and eat on the floor, surrounded by books and piles of clothes.

Young middle-class problems.

20 February 2012

Monday Already? + Bike Notes 8

My weekends have become increasingly interesting since late last year, and the last weekend in particular should go down in my personal history as one of the best ever.

Nothing too spectacular happened, but I had a lot of fun. More importantly, though, I had this overall feeling of satisfaction—this is what I always thought life in my 20s would feel like. It's simple yet fantastic. I can't help but feel grateful for all the good that's come so far.

Mostly, I'm writing about the last weekend, boring as it will sound later to some of you, because I kind of can't believe it happened. The colorful weekends of vivacious 20-somethings are the stuff of music videos and Zooey Deschanel starrers*. A musical number with animated birds, plus a girl wearing a vintage dress and playing the guitar, would have been the cliche cherry on top of this past weekend.

I guess that's what comes of having all your ideas of young adult life colored by whatever pop culture gets through the filter of not growing up in a major city.

Here's where the entry gets boring (look, a lampshade!).

15 February 2012

Davita and me (plus Pi)

It's a great comfort to meet people whose experience of faith is something you can relate to, even if they're fictional characters.

Last week, I finished my mom's Christmas gift to me, "Davita's Harp," by Chaim Potok. Apart from the children's book, "The Tree of Here," this is is the only book by Mr. Potok I have read, but considering how much I liked both books, I might have to check out the ones on my mom's shelf when I go home.

"Davita's Harp" is what I like to call a plainsong kind of novel, after "Plainsong," by Kent Haruf. These are the kinds of books that don't really follow the mountain-shaped beginning-middle-climax-resolution curve. Instead, they feel like a long, leisurely stroll with a friend from one end of a wide field (or plain) to the other. The field may have a few hills, but nothing abrupt; walking over these hills feels natural, and your friend talks about life and memory to help pass the time.

For this reason, books like these are easy to dismiss as "dragging" and even "boring;" like any real friendship, they require a good first impression and then some commitment. It's a good thing "Davita's Harp" was well-written and thus rewarding.

In this book, the friend is the titular character, Ilana Davita Chandal, a grade-school girl growing up in Depression-era New York and trying to make sense of her parents' politics, religion, and the Spanish Civil War overseas.

Davita's background is a bit mixed up. Michael, her American journalist father, comes from a conservative Episcopalian family but has stopped practicing his religion and is a Communist (it is not clear which happened first, or even whether he is agnostic or an atheist). Except for his sister Sarah, a devout missionary nurse, and one odd uncle, Michael's family has cut off all contact with him because of his (un)beliefs.

Davita's mother Anne, meanwhile, is a social worker, Polish immigrant, and former Orthodox Jew. She becomes a Communist only after getting to know Michael and is also a scholar in her own right. But, she has long despised all religion after surviving her father's abuse and neglect, the horror of the pogroms in Europe, and torture by Cossacks.

Both Anne and Michael are active members of the Communist party in the US and often go to or host meetings.

In the middle of all this is Davita, of course, who, partly as a result of her parents' leanings, and partly just because she's a smart girl, has plenty of books to read, plenty of curiosity, and more awareness of what's going on in the world than most children her age—yet her experience of world events are still definitely a child's.

The titular harp is a door harp at the entrance to the different apartments that the Chandal family inhabits (for vague, likely political reasons, they never stay in one place for too long). The harp strings ping whenever someone enters or exits the home, but over time, they signal the comings and goings of the people in Davita's life.

This is what a door harp looks like. [image source]

Though Davita has no religious upbringing, she is curious about the faith of the people around her: her Aunt Sarah, who prays fervently to Jesus; her next-door neighbor and playmate Ruthie, whose family is piously Jewish; her cousin David, whose mother's recent death has him reciting a mourner's kaddish daily for eleven months; and the writer Jakob Daw, who has no religion but whose stories involve quests for meaning.

Davita also has an early sense of religion as a possible component of one's identity; when neighborhood gang members threaten to beat her for being a Jew, her father's non-Jewish status has everyone confused—"So, what are you?"—and they let her pass, for now.

What I like about Davita's growing faith is that it seems to grow naturally. Mr. Potok does not actually explain why she is drawn to religion, so we are left to come up with our own reasons, or even to project our own experiences of faith onto her. Perhaps she wants something to fill her time alone, because her parents, loving as they are, must go out and make a living or serve the party. Perhaps she is looking for some kind of center amid all the moving from apartment to apartment. Perhaps she seeks a sense of order under the atmosphere of war and chaos. Perhaps she wants solace from grief and abandonment. Perhaps she is drawn to the religious community and the possibility of friends and family with a shared interest.

Perhaps it is all these things, or perhaps there is no one reason. Davita says nothing at all about any experience of a God drawing her near—yet we are free to believe that this may be it—we just know that she's following her heart. And sure, there are some people who try to convert Davita one way or another, but in the end, she goes to the synagogue because it feels like the right place to be, even if she doesn't understand what the rituals are about. She begins to kneel with her Christian aunt in prayer, even if Davita herself doesn't believe in Jesus, because it somehow feels right.

And because Davita follows her heart when it comes to faith, she doesn't meekly accept every teaching or custom as-is. She wonders why women must remain separate from the men in the synagogue. When someone close to her dies in the Guernica bombing (the Picasso painting has a huge effect on her when she sees it in person), she feels compelled to recite the mourner's kaddish, though Orthodox custom seems to discourage women from doing so.

When Davita transfers into the yeshiva, the Jewish religious school, she challenges her teachers' literal interpretations of the ancient Hebrew texts and researches an unorthodox theologian on her own. When religious authorities further discriminate against her because of her sex, she begins to understand how a single event can change a person overnight; the novel suggests that feminism may yet become Davita's cause, just as socialism was her parents'.

It is extremely refreshing to read about someone else finding faith without having the author spell out what is leading them. Nor does it seem as though Mr. Potok is imposing an unorthodox or feminist agenda. The characters arrive at their respective conclusions because that is how rational yet fallible human beings arrive at their conclusions. I think Mr. Potok's writing thus respects the nature of faith as personal and definitive yet only partially explicable.

Of course, I may be biased, as I experienced religion in much the same way Davita did. I never took the Bible literally and saw it as a literary compilation, even as a child. I had and still have a lot of questions. Many of those questions—as well as a core idea of the kind of god that the Abrahamic god must be, to be truly God—have led me to disagree with a lot of the things taught in or prescribed by the churches I've attended, including the one I attend now. Like Davita, I have little to say today about a personal experience of a God. And yet, for reasons I can't really explain, I believe in and pray to One.

I recommend "Davita's Harp" to anyone else with similar experiences, anyone who knows someone with similar experiences, anyone with a general interest in faith and religion, and anyone who likes a good plainsong novel (try "Certain Women," by Madeleine L'Engle, too).

The other day, I started "Life of Pi," by Yann Martel. I'm just at the part where the boat has sunk, but so far, I've enjoyed Pi's adolescent exploration and acceptance of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. I especially admire Pi's desire to be a Christian despite his hangups about how avatar-Jesus-as-sacrifice is supposed to work. It doesn't make sense to him (it doesn't make sense to me, either), and yet he knows that there is something good there.

I know conservatives may paint poly-religious Pi as a superstitious, fearful boy trying to cover all the bases for his salvation. But, I'd agree with Pi that he simply sees these three religions as different ways to commune with the one God he loves. One could argue and nitpick all day about how incompatible these religions may be with one another, but ultimately, I think faith and its practice is what we make it.

10 February 2012

Moving House

By tomorrow, if not this evening, my family will have moved out of the house where I grew up. My folks were given a week to get everything out and over to a different house on a different street. The news came one week ago and was short notice for everyone—too short for me and my brother to fly home suddenly, help with the move, and say goodbye to our old house.

That's the mixed blessing of living in company housing, I guess. My family will still be living in Kalsangi, but when I next go home, it'll be to a different house.

I wish we'd known at Christmas; I would have taken more pictures. In recent years, I didn't take so many pictures of the house, because I'd always believed it was the same house I'd always return to; all my family's trails led back to one place. Now, I'm making do with what I can dig up from my computer and my old Multiply account.

If I had to pick just three photos to share, it would be these.

The front door, of course, and the beginning and end of everything (sorry about the light).

My brothers in the sala, before dinner. This space was the most alive part of the house. After I started working, I spent more and more time here than in my own room whenever I was home.

Half of the view from my bedroom window in the morning. It never failed to make me feel glad to be where I was.

When I next go home (I don't know when that will be), someone else will have this view, and I'll have something else to wake up to. I feel a little sick thinking about it.

I had always believed that we would live in our house, and my mom had once told me that we would likely turn down any offer to move to a nicer house. As far as we were concerned, we already had the nicest house in the neighborhood. I'm having trouble understanding now the reasons we have to move.

To me, the house was a physical space that contained my past. While I knew we wouldn't have that space forever, I'd always believed that I'd have time to go back and be the one to empty it. I knew where everything was, waiting for me, and I knew how I'd carry it away. But, I don't get to do that right now. Next time I go home, everything will be in mysterious boxes, or in the wrong box, or on the wrong shelf, and it will feel like visiting a museum of myself that someone else has curated.

When my brother and I got the news, we both told our parents the same thing.

"Don't throw anything away."

01 February 2012

Heat Under the Rocks

Click to enlarge.

Sometime last month, my brother signed up for a church-organized hike-slash-one-day-retreat on Taal Volcano. I wanted to hike, too, but was apprehensive about signing up; in general, I'm wary of Christian strangers asking me questions about my faith. I'd rather avoid situations that open me up to judgment or even condemnation just for being honest about my doubt. I'd also like to avoid situations where I seem to be something I'm not, which is a full-blown believer, and then be accused later of deceit.

Besides, I had Mandarin class the morning the hike group was supposed to head out.

Then, my mom told me that my dad was flying in, not on business, but just to join the hike and spend some time with Mikko and me. This seemed like a lot of trouble on Dad's part, as he takes vacation leaves sparingly, so, I decided to use one of my allowed absences from class and bond with my family.

My goals that day were to just enjoy the time with my dad and brother, enjoy the time outdoors and away from Manila, stay in the background during whatever retreat activity they had planned, and keep quiet when it came time to share. At the very least, the organizer-church—the same church I've been attending with Mikko since late August—seemed to be led by the kind of people who respect other people's quiet.

There were lots of beautiful views (some of which I'm sharing on Tumblr and Facebook).

Click to enlarge.

We went up to the summit and then went back and forth along this long ridge. It was still fairly early in the morning, the sun was not too hot, and there was some cloud cover. Despite the number of tourists going up and down, it was a quiet day.

After some time, we gathered at the rest huts to listen to the retreat master. And funnily enough, the theme of the retreat was goal-meeting (and right off the bat, the master said, "You don't all have to share").

While he didn't say anything or quote any passages I hadn't heard or read before, he did get me to think about questions that almost everyone asks each other and themselves:

What are your goals for today? What are your goals for the future? How are you going to accomplish them?

Is it bad to say, acknowledge, or admit—is it a crime?—that I haven't had a grand life goal since the breakup?

I don't blame Martin for my apparent purposelessness; I believe it was ultimately a good thing for me to arrive where I am now, in the condition I'm in now. But see, back then, so many of my goals depended on him. Today, I haven't stopped wanting the things I wanted; but they've become kind of abstract considering they aren't immediately feasible.

So, all I've wanted to accomplish in the meantime is to learn to be happy with myself, be reconciled with my flawed parts, and stay productive. I don't know when I'll have what I want(ed) or if it will ever arrive, so I just want to be happy catching as catch can.

One warning the retreat master gave everyone last Saturday was that taking things into one's own hands may only muck things up for ourselves, when God has his own designs on our lives. There are plenty of contentious ideas to do with human goal-setting and divine designs, but that day, I didn't want my objections to ruin a lovely day out with my family. I laid most of these objections aside and allowed myself to agree with this one thing: because I don't know what's next, I'm just going to stay reasonably busy, keep the door of my heart open, and hope for the best.

It was, all in all, an awesome day to be out with my family. I felt renewed gratitude for them, especially my parents and all they'd done for me and my brothers. I know my life wouldn't be as good as it is now if it hadn't been for my family and their love.

The love really is the greatest thing, the best thing that helps me keep my faith. On some days, it's not so hard to lay off my doubt and see the beaten track again, the clear path of belief and the relative ease with which it would meet my feet. On those days, I know how easy it is to "just" believe.

I am afraid of rejection there, too. Why would God welcome someone so willful and self-absorbed?

And yet, the love of my family, despite how physically and emotionally distant I've become in the past few years, is what allows me to reach for if not grasp the kind of love that they talk about in church. It is that kind of love that would lead me back to the fervent kind of faith I used to have. And like I said, I'm keeping my door open.

Click to enlarge.