31 October 2020


Joan Didion, writer and my own personal hero, echoes in "Goodbye to All That" about 28:

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it has counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it?

Nothing about this year (2020) was normal. And certainly a lot of the things I expected to happen this year (my 28th) did not quite pan out. It still did, however, highlight a lot of things about myself - perhaps to an even more illuminating degree, since we were all forced to stay at home and come to terms with ourselves, flaws and all. 

I realized that much of who I am now didn't happen over the course of the last six months, not even in the last year. Who we are each day is really a culmination of all our past heartaches and triumphs. Each choice, big or small, is a reflection of the value system we've tinkered with, refined, and stood by in years past.

I turned 29 last Monday. Much like everyone else this year, I celebrated simply and quietly with loved ones. No parties, only lots of cake. Lots of wine. And a profound sense of gratefulness. Everything's on fire, but my head's still above water for the most part. It's buoyed by the many things I allowed myself to take pleasure in this year, guiltlessly and without abandon. 

In Joan Didion's essay, she talked about moving from New York while reminiscing about the time she moved to New York. No similar significant shifts occurred in my life this year, however much of the last two years of my life did have similar departures. Leaving Quezon City to move back to Paranaque, finding comfort in Makati only to make a sudden shift to BGC. But these aren't necessarily permanent decampments so much as just minor detours.

What this year felt like though was actually moving permanently back home. I've been living in our house since 2017, after graduation and during bar review, but it never really felt like I was fully present. My mind was always elsewhere, focused on other far more important things outside. I was always leaving the house (for bar review, for dates, for work) and going back to the house (to sleep, to eat, to prepare for the next day), but I really was not in it. It was very rare for me to be  physically, mentally, and emotionally at home. I was always planning ahead or looking forward to a place outside our gates.

And then this year happened. And suddenly, I was noticing how uncomfortable my chair was. How much sorting my dresser needs. How much unnecessary clutter I had to give away. How our couch feels like the best encapsulation of what a cloud is like. How we never run out of Yakult. How much bread we consume as a family. How ideal my room is for sit-ups and planks but not much else that involves a bigger radius. How generous our entire house's lighting was for zoom meetings. How tall our gumamela trees (they really are literal trees now; they're taller than my grandma's house) were. How my ceiling is the perfect blank slate to wake up to.

It really did feel like stumbling into a new place again. To borrow from Didion, nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about. An old photo album, an unseen book, an unnoticed piece of painting under the staircase. Each piece a part of history that was yet to be discovered again. While the last seven months have been emotionally suffocating, it has also been pleasant. It was nice to really know every nook and cranny of the structure again. And more importantly, I'm quite appreciative of the time I get to spend with my family.

I don't know when I started feeling like our house was something I should depart from. It has always been comforting and warm and nice (my mom decorates really well). But it was also very restricting. To put it in very simple terms: my favorite Disney princesses were Rapunzel and Jasmine. Take with that what you will. There was always an "out there" that I had to go to, or be in, or take part of. For many reasons, home felt like an anchor that held me back.

But it isn't and it shouldn't be. I know now how much that rings true, and how lucky I am that I have a safe place to hide in and to take comfort in, especially when the outside is no longer the great escape it used to be. 

If not for the quarantine, who knows if I would've ever gotten the chance to really live here again? Before all this, my mind was made up about leaving for studies abroad, or leaving to settle down. While those are still definitely happening, the certainty seems to have dissipated thanks to the pandemic. But surprisingly, I don't feel so bad about it. 

Maybe I should just stay put.

I know I should be looking forward to 29. For a lot people, 29 is "clutch." It's the last year before 30, a chance to set big goals and take higher leaps. Although - *looks around* - considering everything that's been going on, I'm not about to make unrealistic expectations about what lies ahead. The truth is, on any other year, I would have chosen to ignore the pressure that comes with 29 just the same. More so now, when everything is this chaotic. 

So here goes my prediction for 29, and my farewell to 28: for sure I'll be elsewhere in a few years' time. Definitely. But while there's no certainty about when yet, or even the how, I'll just concern myself with the what: the reality is I'm going to be here for a little while. Time is collapsing into one permanent place, feeling endless and immoveable but also indubitably fading away. Still and all the same, I should be fine. 

It's easy to see beginnings and harder to see the ends.

This is what it was all about, wasn't it?

14 October 2020

Six months ago, it was almost entirely impossible to imagine that I'd be welcoming my birthday month still stuck at home. But here we are, in the middle of October, uncertain still about what lies ahead. Angrier, more anxious than ever.

Not surprisingly, as another way of coping, I've found myself sliding back into a (very, very) old habit. After some herculean house cleaning (my mom's initiative, obviously), I managed to dig up our old Wii and decided to install it in my grandmother's house, particularly in the room I used to stay in for bar review. Needless to say, I was re-hooked, like the sixteen-year-old that I was when we first got the thing in 2007. In less than two weeks, I managed to purchase (secondhand) games, buy a new remote, and set up a whole AV system in that room.

I dove head first into Rock Band the moment the Wii's power button turned green. I cannot genuinely use the idiom "It's like riding a bike," because I never learned how, but I guess I'd have no problem saying "It's like playing fake plastic instruments," because man, I didn't forget.

Muscles having memories has always been interesting to me. It is widely believed that once you learn how to do something physical, over time, it becomes easier and easier to do it without thinking. It feels like your body remembers how to do it. Biologists and neuroscientists propose that it can mean at least two slightly different things: (1) that when you stress your muscles to the point of hypertrophy, your muscles grow new cells which stick around and allow you to continuously perform certain functions, or (2) the parts of your brain responsible for movement develop stronger connections between neurons that function to engage that motion. 

Either way, it being a function of muscle cells or brain cells, muscle memory happens. It exists, and it's fascinating. While our brain may not consciously remember certain things, some way, somehow, parts of us do.

The first song I tried playing again was "Everlong" by Foo Fighters. The drums come in at exactly the eleventh second. The snare and the bass come crashing and the entire song just explodes within the first thirty seconds. The instruments and the harmony fuse together so quickly and effortlessly just before the completion of the song's opening minute; no build up, no fancy lead-ins. It so quickly and immediately assembles a spectacle of a song, like a fully-formed Athena coming out of Zeus' skull. It's joyous and infectious and fantastic. All four minutes of it.

So much of instrument-playing requires feeling instead of thinking. While the first few steps of learning is cerebral, once you master the how's, it's the other elements that step in and allow you to continue playing well. I play the piano; I know how to hit the keys at the right time, to look at visual cues and hold a note, to ease the pressure when the piece requires it. But eventually the actual skill will translate into something less analytical, something more reliant on sensations and impulses. 

It's a skill that I didn't realize would translate even with fake plastic instruments. But there I was, leaning into the song's rhythm so effortlessly, as if I've been playing the thing for years. (Granted, I was just on Medium.) The feeling of just knowing when to strike — it's consistent, apparently. Tapping into our internal metronome, once unlocked, turns out to be a prowess which never fully departs your muscles. 

I didn't forget.

"Everlong" is simple and candid in its message too. It doesn't work its way into a delicately ensconced narrative. It just straight up tells the beloved, Hello, I've waited here for you. No idioms, no analogies, no figures of speech. No thinking necessary. 

Music, motion, memory — a lot of these things don't require much contemplation when we get down to it. Purely instincts. That sense of recognition is automatic. Once it is made familiar — embedded in the fiber of our muscles and the maps of our cells — it never quite leaves. 

I went through all the other songs in my Rock Band CDs in sentimental haste. As I struck the rubber drum pads one by one, all the memories of playing these songs came rushing back. It was such a glorious, carefree time in my life, jamming it out with my friends on pseudo-instruments. All of a sudden, it felt like a virtual time machine to different points in the past: each track made me relive past heartbreaks, old parties, great entanglements, recollections of a percussionist's hands touching mine, tapping along to the beat.

But more than that, the additional weight of knowing that you aren't only singing along — the visceral, intuitive nature of actually feeling like you were one with the song because your hands, your feet, your muscles remember — it was exhilarating.

I sometimes get lost in the sadness of forgetting. I have a tendency to lose things in my mind — I keep forgetting to lock my car, or where I place my glasses, or what friends gave to me for past birthdays, or the things people dear to me last said. And once they're gone, they're forever lost in the ether. But there is so much comfort in knowing now that something within me isn't consigned to oblivion. My hands, my feet — my body — it remembers. It manages to sway along to a familiar beat. When it recognizes something it has done before, it knows.

Grohl asks, "And I wonder, if anything could ever feel this real forever?"

To this, muscle memory attests. It is quiet and surprising in remembering, potent in its affirmation. And isn't the heart a muscle too?
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