A family at Freedom Park

Not so long ago, I wrote about the happiness in self-forgetfulness. I wrote about that incredible feeling of exhilaration we encounter when we are so captivated by something else we forget about our anxieties. We usually experience this when we read a good book, listen to a piece of tantalizing music, or watch a well-executed film. Some would say we are escaping reality when we consume such good art. But I think a more accurate description of what is happening here is that we are running away from that ever domineering self-consciousness that Dillard called “a bitter birthday present from evolution.” Even more surprising is that from this forgetting comes peace of mind and healing—a silencing of troubles.

However, I notice that we do self-forgetfulness easily when we are in front of media—screens or book pages (which are now also screens). These are the modern tools of transcendence. I am using transcendence here very loosely, but with good reasons. I believe that our experience of transcendence lies in a spectrum of different varieties and intensities. There are deeper forms of transcendence as shared by, say, serious meditators, but there are more ordinary and common forms that are readily accessible by anyone. As long as you have “escaped” self-consciousness, whatever you are doing, you have transcended. Flow, that ever-popular word referring to what artists and athletes experience when “in the zone,” is a form of transcendence. But even that lies on the farther edges of the spectrum. A more common form of transcendence is what we usually experience when consuming information stored in media. This form of transcendence is easier. It’s easier to be captivated by a Netflix movie than the silence of an empty room where you are sitting in the middle.

Media-less Transcendence

However, this over-reliance on media could stunt our ability to be alone with our senses. Yes, we are toolmakers and tool users, but earlier in our evolution, we only had our hands and mind to use, and we seem to have completely forgotten that those were enough for a very long time. It is important to experience self-forgetfulness and transcendence as organic as possible (i.e., through our bare senses) at least once in a while. It is harder, yes, but the experience is more enlightening, insightful, and freeing. Why? Because it puts us in direct contact with reality. And reality isn’t orchestrated like the story in a film or a book or a song. Reality is messy—a fluctuating arrangement (or perhaps disarrangement) of atoms and photons.

There is an important difference between these two ways of experiencing the world—two ways of seeing as Dillard describes it:

The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

If being alone with your thoughts in a room is fatally difficult, try another form of organic experience that I discovered can be extremely transcendental: listening—pure listening with no intention of responding.

When I listen to someone talk, I still consume structured or possibly even coordinated information. But there is an unexplainable quality to face-to-face conversations that make them richer than video or voice calls. Yet rightfully so. I am interacting with hormone-releasing flesh, not a radiation-emitting screen. Furthermore, even when it is structured, a conversation is still not immune from the vagueness of reality. It could lead anywhere; countless things could happen. It mimics the messy nature of reality. And yet, despite the mess, if I listen closely, without thinking about what to say back but simply being present with the other person, I inevitably forget about myself. I seem to become the other person, not in that magical wuwu way, but naturally and imaginatively, that happens within my own subjective experience.

Ironically, we couldn’t dismiss that curated information in media makes transcendence easier. The mind needs structure for it to quiet down. Give it form, and it will surrender itself, calm down, and ultimately forget. And this is what I love about reading. Reading feels like listening to someone talk for a long time without me thinking about responding, but in a well-structured and coordinated manner. When I read a good book, I find myself transcend—I forget that I am even existing.

So, I guess the path to self-forgetfulness is not a straight singular one. There are so many other roads towards it, and to ignore the others in favor of one is simply absurd and deprived. The more tools we have, the more resilient we are because if one tool is unavailable, we can still get the job done. In self-forgetfulness, we need to experience both media-assisted and media-less methods, then learn when to use each one appropriately. This principle of embracing different strategies, of trying other techniques, does not only apply to transcendence. It applies to almost every single pursuit in life.

A blue dilapidated building

How Two Birds Taught Me to Walk and Write Better

Early in May, I took a brief walk at Victoria M. Ela Avenue inside the UPLB campus. I started walking out of the house around 5 pm, so the sun was no longer that dark. I had to go home by 7 pm for dinner, so I only had two hopefully good hours to walk. At Ela, I stopped at the bridge and looked down at the Molawin creek. On the stream, I saw two birds cross the water towards the other bank full of stones. They looked like bush hens with long slender feet. They separated for a while in a very coordinated manner, as if identical birds were walking in separate directions or raptors hunting in sync. A few moments later, the two birds met again. They walked some more until they vanished under the shades of banana leaves. When they disappeared, the church bell nearby rang, and a teal kingfisher flew by.

I wrote all of these in my field notes. But not long after this, it started to get dark, and I began to feel tired. I walked a bit at Freedom Park, then made my way home. While walking home, I couldn’t shake off what I had just seen, and that was when I realized I walked for about two hours but only witnessed a single of these moments worth writing. I only found a single piece of Dillard’s pennies.

I went home that evening with a clear intention, brought by the feedback I received while actively doing something. From now on, I decided to extend my walking hours. I reasoned that if I could capture a single penny in two hours, I might catch another or more in four hours of walking. A few days after this, I did another walk, but now I started about an hour earlier, and boy was I rewarded with pennies at that walk!

Just the act of extending time led me to write longer, more beautiful field notes that ultimately convinced me to relaunch Lilim, my once-archived weekly newsletter on walking. Since May 15, I have published four Lilim issues:

Feedback is everything in life, but more especially in the writing life. Last May, I finished reading DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira, and there I came across a concept that I am very familiar with. I use it to start and maintain habits and systems. The idea is iteration. I never thought about how I could use the same concept to improve my writing life, though. Here are Pereira’s exact words on the subject:

With the “spin your wheels” approach, you try different techniques at random, you don’t track the outcomes, and then you make decisions based on a gut feeling. This method is fine if you have plenty of time on your hands and don’t care about getting results. For writers operating in the real world, I recommend iteration.

This approach to writing was inspired by the entrepreneurial model used in Silicon Valley and described by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup. In a lean start-up environment, developers create a minimal viable product (MVP) and then test and tweak it in cycles to produce the best version possible. As a writer, you can operate in the same way, testing and improving your process over time to become more productive and better at your craft. The key is to build that meta-component into your writing so that you don’t just scrutinize the words you put on the page but also take time to step back and examine your process overall.

I plan on using this approach in the future with my writing life. Feedback from a single walk informed how I should do my walks and propelled me to relaunch an already archived newsletter. This process works! But it relies on noticing and being mindful of useful feedback. Then, as Pereira advises, perform mini-experiments by keeping all other variables constant and testing a single input. For example, moving forward, I am thinking about changing my Lilim publication schedule from weekly to biweekly in response to feedback. I notice that I have become too product-oriented since relaunching Lilim. I spend a lot of time writing, revising, and formatting essays and the quality of my thoughts has noticeably decreased. The weekly publishing schedule also conflicts when I am about to write this newsletter you are reading, which is longer and takes more time to accomplish. So, with all else constant, I will try a bi-weekly schedule this June and see if this improves my writing life. I will update you next month.

A biker crossing the bridge

The Los Baños Internment Camp and a Lesson on Kindness

During this intentional improvement of my writing and walking life, I came to a serendipitous find. I have lived in Los Baños for over a year but know almost nothing about its local history. From a conversation I once had with a friend, I learned that it was once a hospital town. I compared this to Baguio’s history as a colonial hill station, a place where worn-down Caucasian men went to rejuvenate their life energies back during the American occupation. Los Baños is similarly colder. It is nearer nature, has a state university, and a respectable ex-pat community. Was it an important American colonial territory? How important? I don’t know, so I wanted to find out.

I am fully aware of how reading about the history of a place almost immediately transforms our relationship with it. When I read Cortes’ claim that the area between Manaoag and my hometown of San Jacinto in Pangasinan was once a thick jungle where bandits and outlaws used to hide, I never saw my hometown the same way again. I would ride my bike around and couldn’t help to think about that jungle she wrote about. We have trees in San Jacinto but no wilderness; everything was converted into agricultural land. I love my rice fields, but rice is nothing to trees. How I wish I saw those trees. I wanted to be surprised the same way. These surprises deepen our appreciation of place and our relationship with it. I was ready to level up my relationship with Los Baños. And the best way to do that is to go to the library.

However, it wasn’t easy to get hold of local history in Los Baños, though. You need access to books, obviously, and with the pandemic, going to the UPLB library is not without friction. I went the first time only to find out that I needed to book a chair online. I did that first, got approved, and returned the following day. While at the Filipiniana section, I was prohibited from searching for any book by myself. Instead, the librarian asked me for a specific title, something I didn’t have because the library’s online website was broken, and I couldn’t search for books there beforehand. So, I just asked the librarian to give me any books they have on Los Baños’ local history. He gave me three books, all of which covered a single story: the rescue of prisoners in the Los Baños Internment Camp.

I picked up the first one, The Los Baños Raid by E. M. Flanagan, and read the first two chapters, which described the camp, how it started, and where it was located. I was surprised to learn that the half of Freedom Park from outside Baker’s Hall until the Fertility Tree and that area along Animal Husbandry, Copeland Gym, and some parts of Viado Street were once part of an internment camp for Western or Caucasian foreigners imprisoned during the Japanese occupation. More than a thousand prisoners were in that camp; many starved to death from 1942 until the remaining were rescued by American forces in 1945. According to Jeff, my friend who is a history professor at UPLB, the liberation of the internees was successful. However, it led to the massacre of Filipino residents living near the campus by the Japanese. My reading hasn’t gotten that far yet, although I would say that this was an expected reaction from the Japanese. It is typical for wartime Japanese soldiers to violently channel their anger toward prisoners and their colonies whenever they faced a defeat.

Map of the Los Baños internment camp

I took a picture of the map of the internment camp and, after leaving the library, walked these parts of the campus to trace the map and figure out what current markers could correspond to those indicated in it. I have repeatedly walked on these parts for more than a year, but they never meant that much to me until I read the stories inside that camp. Soon, I’ll be writing an essay about the camp and my attempt to trace it on that afternoon walk. But for now, I wanted to highlight the most important message I took home after reading about the life inside the internment camp. “When our freedom is crippled, we should respond with kindness.”

This lesson is best exemplified by an account of one Mrs. Nash:

As the fall of 1944 approached, my breast milk was failing, and were all developing the stiff, aching joints of beriberi. Death lurked close now. Roy, his head pathetically larger for his shrunken little body, had scarcely enough energy left to cry. They boys, slumping against the barracks wall for support, talked weakly and endlessly about food.

By Christmas, I had all but given up hope. All real nourishment for Roy was gone. For once, not even the skipper could think of anything to say. I know now it was because he was making his big decision.

The next morning I was standing wearily in the water line, Roy in one arm and clay jug in the other, when the skipper walked up and handed me a newspaper-wrapped package. “For the wee one,” he said casually. “I’ve been saving it for him.”

It was a while can of powdered milk, saved from the one Red Cross shipment that had got through to us more than a year earlier. It was enough to make a gallon of strength—two gallons the way we diluted it. “No, Skipper,” I stammered. “You’ll need it yourself.”

“Never touch the stuff,” he said gruffly. He looked at Roy for a long moment, then turned away. In tears I called after him, “How can I ever repay you?” Half-jokingly he called back, “Just play me ‘Danny Boy’ at your next concert.”

On New Year’s Day I made a last feeble effort at giving a recital. Skipper didn’t show up to take the front-row camp chair I had reserved for him. Omitting encores, I rushed to the infirmary—too late. Hugh Williams was gone. The prison doctor said he died from acute colitis. “An all-milk diet might have saved him,” he added.

This bead of kindness that dripped out from that internment camp while evil happened inside and around it still floods the campus and overflows out into the streets of Los Baños, decades after the liberation of the internees.

Early this month, after meeting two friends at Haraya, I saw that woman once again who single-handedly feeds all the stray cats at Batong Malake. I see her all the time whenever I start walking by 5 pm. I was always curious about her but always felt shy to approach her. After telling my friends about her, one of my friends said we should approach her, so we introduced ourselves. We learned that her name was Ate Nadia (if my memory does not fail me). When asked whether she is part of an organization, she said no; she was doing this all by herself, buying cat food using her money, which she earns from an entire day’s work as a housekeeper. Every so often, there are too many cats to feed that her wage isn’t enough. When this happens, she asks for a favor from the nearby pet food vendor and borrows some pet food. When asked whether she has cats at home, she said a lot! She rescues some really young and vulnerable ones and brings them home where she can help them grow or get better.

We were all awestruck after hearing this. Here’s a woman—thin, poor, and old—who makes way less money than all of us and yet tirelessly walks the streets of Batong Malake every single afternoon to do what no one else wants to do—to feed the hungry ones. But I was not entirely surprised. I have seen this before. Not long ago, while walking along Cubao, I saw a boy feeding a family of stray cats: a mother and a few tiny kittens. The child was also living on the streets, and the food he provided perhaps came from the same food a kind passerby may have given him. Why does kindness arise from places that we least expect it to appear? These outliers break Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They transcend themselves, they forget themselves in the service of others, and they amazingly do so while they are still hungry, unsecured, and unhealthy.

Poor boy feeds cats

“Thank You for Visiting Me”

I mentioned above that trial and error is an effective way of finding strategies of living that work for us. But kindness, I find, is something that works all the time. You don’t need trials and error to know that it is effective. Among all the strategies of living, showing kindness is the most enduring. Another meeting with a stranger this month validated this for me. It showed me that at the end of it all, nothing matters but the kindness we receive from others.

One afternoon during my second trip to Lopez, Quezon, we visited one of the patriarchs of Sta. Teresa—one Lolo Aldo. He was a Pangasinense like me, and my companions thought it would be nice for Lolo Aldo, now in his 90s, to speak with someone who speaks his childhood language again. Lolo Aldo lives in his house near the fishponds that now belong to his son, who lives with him temporarily, that is until he is gone. We all went to see the patriarch, but not everyone stayed long. His room was too small, and urine stench filled the air—that stench which seemed to say, “I can no longer control my body. I am losing control, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do about it.”

The windows were open. They were large windows, and outside, the fishponds sat in silence while the hills behind them watched. The patriarch talked very softly, so I had to come closer. “From where were you in Pangasinan?” I asked him. “Maasin,” he said. I remembered that Maasin was also a railroad barangay in Mangaldan, Pangasinan, much like Sta. Teresa, where he currently lives. Perhaps as a young man, he would ride the train just outside his house at Maasin, travel for an entire day or two, then get off at Sta. Teresa, where he would engage with whatever his trade was and eventually build a family there. We talked a lot about many things, but two things struck me. First, when asked what food he would like us to cook for him, he said nothing. Silent, he doesn’t seem to care. What goes in his mouth doesn’t seem to matter anymore. He has reached that point in one’s life where the taste of food is completely irrelevant, and food is no longer for pleasure but a tool to sustain one’s life force. Second, after trying and failing to ask him what food he wanted, he uttered these words, which I will never forget.

“It is near. I can feel it. It is near. The end is near for me. But thank you so much for remembering me. Thank you for visiting. I am tired. I will now get back to sleep.”

They helped him back to his pillow, and we all left the room.

A fishpond at Lopez, Quezon