I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


Yesterday a great soul left this world. Maya Angelou died at 86.

There are so many famous people throughout history. People who’ve built cities, torn down walls, started wars, and others who brought peace. But there’s something about art and writing that is lasting. I’ve read a handful of quotes by her and each one of them affects me. There’s something about the written word that touches deep inside the spaces of your soul, to places that nothing else can reach. Words echo, resound and stay with you. Artist are immortal in that way. Their voices rise about the rubble, their art conquers time, they’ve distilled truth so plainly and beautifully with the few simple tools they have. Maya Angelou’s voice will echo into the darkness and her voice will bring light to us as it always has. She will still rise.

In memoriam, here are a 10 of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes:

  1. I believe that each of us comes from the creator trailing wisps of glory.
  2. You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.
  3. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
  4. You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
  5. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.
  6. Nothing will work unless you do.
  7. You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.
  8. We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.
  9. Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option. (Love this; this quote helped to empower me as I worked through my last break up.)
  10. A woman’s heart should be so hidden in God that a man has to seek Him just to find her. (This has been mantra for a long while but only Maya Angelou could articulate it so well.)
Did i miss a good quote? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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A Change of View

D4046B9A-782F-11E1-9A28-D2AD052995DAWhen I had my one-on-one with my mentor, M. Evelina Galang at VONA, I was bout to piss my pants. My manuscript was scattered with no real plot or cohesion. The one story that did have promise was, “A Christmas Robbery,” the one thing I actually worked and re-worked (and re-worked) so that it won me that place in Tayo Lit Mag. I guess it shouldn’t be any surprise that the one piece that I actually spent the most time perfecting was the one that had the most potential.

She gave me some interesting feedback and asked me to write the story from the perspective of the mother. I had never thought to do it that way because I had always been so busy trying to capture it from my point view, the point of view of the little girl, because it’s the way the story has unfolded in my memory.

But Evelina taught me an important lesson in distancing myself from my work. I had been so invested in staying “true” to story that I had missed the potential in exploring the mother’s complexity. No, not my mom’s complexity, but the woman in the story. (Although, admittedly in writing it, I did begin to empathize with my mother during that difficult time in our lives.) In taking this step back I was able to find new paths in developing the character and the conflict that propels her forward through the plot… and I’m still not done yet! Here’s the revision of the story I made while I was in Miami.

I didn’t want to take her into the city, but I had to.  Her yaya fell ill and I had no one to take care of her.  Before the jeepney arrived I slowly bent down and told her, “Huwag mo bitawan yong kamay ko.” She obeyed and took my hand. Manila was dangerous so I pressed on, “If you let go of my hand, walang ka nang nanay.” Tears filed her inchik eyes.  She always did look like her father more than me.  I wanted to comfort her and apologize for my harshness.  She was only 4 years old, but I knew she had to learn.   If she let go, she would be lost.

It broke my heart to utter the words, but how much more if something should happen to her? She needed that fear to survive out there.

We moved quickly down the streets, her little feet struggling to keep up.  I had so many errands to run and I wanted to get her out of the city as quickly as possible.  We were stopped on the sidewalk and I looked down to check on her.  Her cute mouth agape, staring at a banana-q stand.  I wish I had a camera to snap a photo and send to her father.  I asked her if she wanted one but she shook her head.  Her eyes though, always betrayed her.  You could see and know everything by them. I was always at the hospital with J.R’s constant illnesses.  The Philippine pollution and heat were difficult on his fragile body.  Every month he would be in there for a new illness.  I’d have to leave her with the yaya every time.  During those difficult times I would ask her how she was doing and she would lie.  She was so small, but so brave.  She had learned to put on a face for me, while I tended to her brother.  I knew I had to do better by her.   I bought her two banana-q and promised we’d go to Magnolia ice cream shop before returning home.

Paroles brightly lit the streets and this gave me hope.  Soon, Virgil would be coming home to visit and stay for a couple of weeks.  A few months ago, the kids had a small recital at school where they learned “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It was their first English production.  Ginette vigorously rowed her arms just the way the teachers taught her.  Her sherbet colored sailor dress bobbed on the papier mache waves.  J.R. gallantly wore a miniature navy man’s uniform and sharply saluted the crowd.  His arms were covered in mosquito bites, ones that I tried to cover with makeup.  “Iwanan mo, mommy, they make me look like a real sailor!” I had never been so proud.  After the show I saw both moms and dads rushing to their children.  JR and Ginette could only run up to me.  I didn’t have enough arms to hold them.

Today was a special vigil for St. Anthony.  I had to light a candle for Virgil to assure a safe trip home.  The paperwork never seemed to end.  These 6-month stints were growing more difficult.  When would we truly be a family again?

I positioned my little girl in one of the middle pews.  She sat forward with her short legs hanging over the side of the pew.  The pew was so large, it enveloped this tiny girl.  I scanned the church to see only a few worshipers scattered throughout.  I didn’t want to leave her there but St. Anthony would grant our family special favor today for his feast day.  I needed to pray for us.  Reluctantly I handed her my purse and told her to wait there while I prayed.

The walk down the aisle didn’t seem as long the first time.  I could almost see Virgil at the altar, waiting for me.   I took a padded pew before St. Anthony.   I hated the idea that St. Anthony was the patron saint of the lost.  My husband was not missing, but in those agonizing months apart, I felt lost.  Could I be both mother and father? Was I enough? Ginette was 4 and JR only 2.  Would I lose my family even before we had had a chance to begin?

Hot tears cascaded down my rosary.  And then I felt a tug on my on sleeve.

“Mommy?”

Anakko! Are you ok?” I struggled to stand up and wipe my face with a pano.

She lowered her eyes and faintly whispered, “Kunin nila yong purse mo…”

My heart stopped.  I looked toward the empty pew.  I looked to her small empty hands.  And in the distance, I could hear a rapid click clack of footsteps against the marble floor.  I took her hand and we raced through the church, and out onto the street.

I raced to the Carriedo Fountain just in front of church and climbed onto the edge.  I paced the perimeter of the fountain, feverishly scouring the busy street, searching for anyone with the purse Virgil had given me.  I looked down to my little girl below, fighting back her tears.  What had I done?

I spotted a policeman nearby and explained what had happened, but he hadn’t seen a thing.  It hurt for me to beg for money but I had no other choice.  Somehow I had to find away to get us out of there.  We took the first jeepney to the nearest bank.

I explained the story to the tellers and tried to hide my shame for doing something so foolish.  How could I leave my daughter like that? How could I risk making her lost? Her head hung low all day.  She hadn’t said a word since we ran out of the church.   All the bank employees marveled at her bravery.  I did too.  They all offered her candy but she refused.  My child was needlessly hard on herself.  She needed something more.  I was going to make good on my promise.

We walked out of the bank and down a few blocks.  Ginette’s shoes were scuffed from our tear of the city.  It was much more of Manila than I wanted her to see.

I turned the corner and said to her, “Ah, dito na tayo.”

I pointed to the shop window and her cute mouth opened in awe.  Mango, macapuno, jackfruit, and her favorite, ube ice cream melting before her eyes.

Gusto mo ba?” I asked.

Tears filled her eyes and she couldn’t bring herself to look up at me.  I bent down to wipe them away and took her gently in my arms.

I pulled out pesos from the bank, “See? Wala lang.”

A Leap of Faith

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Any creative person is by nature a perfectionist. But perfectionists are more fearful of failure than exploring the possibility of triumph. But successful creative people have to be one part talented and the other part brazen. They look at the ‘What if?’ and say ‘So, what?’

Leap and the net will appear

– Zen saying

Cris and I were out on a lovely walk of downtown when we stumbled on a plaza that neither of us had ever noticed.  It small and had a unusual fountain in the middle of it with three long pools of water just behind it.  While we talked, I climbed onto the edge of the first pool.  When I got to end of it, I contemplated the space between it and the next pool.

“Jump!” He said.

“No, I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too far,” I said.

“I think you can, if you had a good running start,” Cris said.

We talked for good awhile about the dimensions of the gap and logistics of it all.  The gap was 6 feet across and 3 feet high.  I am barely 5 feet tall, how was I supposed to do that? At the moment I was content with being cute and made Cris carry and place me safely on the other side.

Then a large heavyset woman in a motorized wheelchair pulled up to us.

“What are you guys doing?” she demanded.

I thought she was being very familiar, as if we were her kids, jumping naughtily on the bed.

“We’re trying to see if she can jump the gap,” Cris pointed.

She glanced at the gap and said, “Oh yea, you can make that easily.”

“No way!” I exclaimed.  I could feel my knees shaking, already thinking about the blood that would spew from them if I tried to make the leap.

“Why not?” she insisted.  Wasn’t I just having this conversation with Cris?

“Well, I’m short and I just think it’s too far.  I wouldn’t be able to clear it.”

“Who says?” she shot back.

I opened my mouth and shook my head and shrugged.  I had no words.   Who was this stranger telling me what to do? She could sense my uneasiness.  Or maybe it was something more like fear.

“Look, if you got a running start, a really good running start, you can do it.  You’d have to take off your flip flops, but you can definitely make it.”

“But what if I fall? Scrape or bang up my knee?”

“You won’t.  Look, he’s right there to catch you,” she motioned to Cris.  “All you gotta do is try.”

I shook my head vigorously.

She tried again, “All you gotta do is believe that you can.  That’s all it is.  Whatever’s telling you that you can’t.  You need to stop that now.  You gotta break through.”

A moment of silence passed.  I looked at this stranger. On her wheelchair was everything she owned, bags of clothes, newspapers, and books.  She was at least 200 pounds.  In her right hand, she held a cracked, plastic magnifying glass to help her read her magazine.  Her left leg was gone, and her left arm, no more than a stump.  She was smiling.

Here I was, 29 years old, all my limbs intact,  healthy and able-bodied, declaring to her the disbelief in the power and ability of my own body.  I didn’t really want to attempt the jump, and it wasn’t about the fear of falling anymore.  I knew that if I didn’t at least try, I was doing this stranger wrong.  If she believed so steadfastly in me, I only wondered what great trials she’d overcome and what kind of belief it took her to triumph over them.  Now it was my turn.

I looked toward the gorge and slowly walked backwards.  Every couple feet or so, I stopped and gauged the distance – was this enough for a good, hard and fast run? I backed up even further, sliding my flip-flops off and hooking them onto my fingers.  Finally, I came to just below half of the pool.  It was time to let go.  My heart was racing but I couldn’t back out on this now.  They were both watching.  More importantly, she was watching! Why did I care about she thought? But right at that moment, that’s all that mattered.  If she believed in me, why couldn’t I?

I bent down and solemnly folded up the bottom of my jeans.  I tied my hair back in a loose bun.  You would think I was preparing for the Olympic long jump.  Like a bull peering ahead to its matador, I picked my left foot and my then my right foot, scuffing the cement.  This was it.  Now or never.

I took a deep breath and ran as fast as I could.  Wind in my hair, and the world whizzing past, I hurled myself forward over the divide.  I stumbled and bumped my knee but to my amazement, I had made it to the other side.

“YEAH!!” Cris exclaimed.

“You did it!” The stranger shouted.  “See- I told you!”

I turned around to look at my own Grand Canyon, it didn’t seem so big now.  “Yea, I can’t believe it… ”

“You see, you stumbled there at the end.  Why?” she asked.

“Well, because I panicked a bit.  I didn’t think I was going to clear it.”

“Aha! But you did! If you had straightened your back when you landed, you would’ve been standing just perfect.  Your feet were already there, but you doubted yourself and you came down on your knee.”

“She’s right! You had already made it!” Cris said.

“Yea… I think I remember feeling my feet on the cement.”  I was still in disbelief.

She could see the shock in my eyes and asked, “Why is it so hard for you to believe that you can do that? Why you can do anything?”

I shrugged with my eyes downcast and said nothing.  In my silence my head filled with the voices of teachers, my parents, friends, loved ones, all telling me I couldn’t do something.  I couldn’t sing because I was off-key.  I couldn’t play a sport because I wasn’t athletic.  I couldn’t write because it wouldn’t make a living.  After awhile, I started to believe I just simply couldn’t.  The chasm and the doubt had penetrated me too deeply.

This stranger studied me and inched her wheelchair closer to me.  Her eyes, warm and aglow with a light that came from somewhere else.

“Whatever they told you, you break that thinking now.  You believe in whatever you want and with everything you got, and miracles can happen.” She smiled gently. “You just have to jump.”

She pulled a joystick back, reversed her wheelchair and left us.  As spontaneously and serendipitously as she came, she was gone.  My own guardian angel, motored fearlessly into the distance.

I looked to Cris, “Did you really think I could make the jump?”

“Of course.  The only problem is, you didn’t.”

Fragments

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This was a fun poetry exercise. We took fragments of others’ poetry and spliced it with our own work to make an entirely new poem. It was a great opportunity to force experimentation and stretch our creative sensibilities. Some of these lines are so cutting and graphic, I wish I could tell you who wrote them and properly acknowledge these talented poets. But I can tell you clearly which lines are mine! This whole thing is emo, so I’ve identified my lines in blue.

Masochistic Melancholy

I watch the purple-gray day suffocate in the quilt of night
Like a newly-formed tooth piercing through the tender flesh of a baby’s gum
It feels like shards of stained glass have pierced my eye
The day ends, but now my journey begins
In waking I sleep, but through dreams I live
To rape your mind…
I am Aphrodite- condemned on her scarred knees
Craving words like a shiver does sun
Underpaid in love, starving for compassion,
Like a siren, you sing to me in the sweet notes of a minor key, calling me in tempting treble
Waiting with indulgent glee to become the most beautiful of butterflies
Eager to steal my breath in one long, life-giving, passionate kiss and then-
For a moment our eyes caught, and you gazed at me as we shared the loudest silence

Last scraps of light slip from celestial bodies
You coax me to down the drunken apothecary’s ground-stirred-foaming concoction
Filling me with the ashes of You.
For you I bleed, for you I climb,
The sweet I sought, the bitter I find.

TIME

MakingTime

I wrote this after a break-up as I impatiently waited for the pain to pass. It was a gentle but firm reminder to appreciate the moment for what it was and not what I longed for it to be.

TIME. The word itself in all its capital glory is ominous. There’s never enough of it, and we are in agony when there’s just too much of it.  At 7.5 years old I was no longer a mere 7 years resident on this earth, I was clearly halfway to being 8. And what eager 20 year old is not already making plans for a monumental 21st birthday? We’re always in a rush to get somewhere else.

We never enjoy where we already are. Sometimes the moment itself is so painful and difficult to climb from, so we launch our thoughts, our actions forward and away, catapulting us and pulling us from the misery.  But why should the passing of time be agonizing to begin with? After all, what is a moment but a collection of minutes? A year, but a collection of months? And time, but a construct of the weary mind? Why should time be so long?

Icarus

icarus-1944Icaro+by+Fernando+Zobel

I’ve always had a fascination with the Myth of Icarus. I submitted this piece for a magazine and it unfortunately didn’t make the cut. Some may call that a failure but I believe Icarus would feel differently. Here’s a snippet of that flight.

… Now, more than ever, I think about my fascination with the Myth of Icarus.  It’s so strange because even as a kid, I felt drawn to the story and to the image of this boy flying into the clouds and plummeting into the sea. Later in middle school, my teacher showed us the painting of Henri Matisse’s Fall of Icarus. Again this image of this single body falling from the sky greatly affected me. I never understood why until I read Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce, in high school. We had to scrutinize the work for all the different allusions to previous works, one of them pointing to the Myth of Icarus.

I remember thinking what a strange coincidence. I was already enjoying the book because it was chronicling the genesis and evolution of a writer, much like I had imagined I would write about my life. The more I read, the more it hit closer to home.  The protagonist, Stephen Daedalus is torn between appeasing his family by going into a ‘regular’ job, or following his dream to be a writer. His entire life is about his struggle, this ebb and flow between what he wants and what he has to do.

My last and most powerful encounter with this myth was quite recently.  I was staying at a friend’s for the weekend and was paging through a book of artwork by Filipino artists.  I came across the sketches of Fernando Zobel, one of them entitled Icaro.  I stared at it for a long while.  To anyone it could look like scribble, but again, something drew me to it.

Icarus’ father, Daedalus, fashioned the wings from wax for Icarus to help them escape from prison. Daedalus instructed his son not to fly too low, or the water would wet his wings, and not too high, or the sun would melt it away.  Icarus had to fly just at the right height, lest he fall.  But how did Icarus decide to take that flight?

Enthralled by the thrill of flight, he went higher and higher, closer and closer to the sun.  His desire, to go beyond what others could see, was his ultimate downfall.  I long to write, but if I do dedicate myself to this, will I suffer the same fate as poor Icarus? Will the desire to follow my passion melt all sensibility and have me fall away? I look at this story every which way and can see it as nothing but a tragedy. But what would Icarus say?

I’d only ask Icarus one thing, “Was it worth it?” I’d like to think he’d smile and say yes. His story is immortalized as tragedy, and that is how history remembers that flight.  But how would Icarus recount his own journey? I imagine and can only hope that he’d look back on it as a victory. He did what no one would dare to do.  And in doing so, he got to fly through the clouds and see the world like no one else would.

I believe that one moment of freedom could outweigh a lifetime of imprisonment. I believe that one moment of being who you are, could easily outweigh a lifetime of pretending who you aren’t. If all I have is one flight, one moment- let it be this. Let it be every single moment after this. Icarus has made himself known to me ever since I was a child, the image of his flight forever emblazoned on my mind. I’ve spent a lifetime denying who I am, my passions, my beliefs, the only tragedy is not that I plummet into the ocean like Icarus. The tragedy is that I never realize who I am and I never even take that leap of faith.

No one remembers a lifetime. People only remember moments, little spaces of time that change the entire course of their lives. If I can only have this moment to change, let it be this.

Perfection

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I wrote this after I did something very stupid one weekend and was consumed in remorse. Though the event prompted this journal entry, it’s a sentiment that I’ve long struggled with.

‘Even a halo is something to keep clean.’

What does it mean to be perfect? I’ve been searching for the answer to this for a couple days now, but I realize that this has been more of a lifelong query. With my Catholic upbringing it has always been difficult to adhere to the highest standards of morality and integrity.

I think about how I was raised in a rather strict Filipino home. I had to serve as the consummate example for my younger brother. The grades had to be the best, because our family was always the best. You are not to have a boyfriend before college or you will get pregnant and ruin your life. You are to watch over your brother because he looks up to you. Someone was always watching, and judging and I felt I could never just be. And mid-way through college, when it came time to cement my major and my future, I abandoned my love of writing for a more respectable major.

They never once asked me to make that shift, but I didn’t want to let my parents down. They had sacrificed for me and my brother that I didn’t want to let them down but relying solely on an art. How could I re-pay my parents back by putting my thoughts on paper?

My relationships were no better. I had no idea what it meant to be a ‘perfect’ girlfriend. It was like sand through my fingers, the more I held tightly to the ideal of perfection, the more they would slip from me.

Perhaps perfection is a mere ideal that we work towards but never completely achieve. It is something to strive towards that makes us better in our pursuit of it. But intention and execution are two very different things. Maybe that’s why we need things outside of ourselves to help us achieve that near-perfectness. God, art, love – these are things that are pure in and of themselves – but are transformed into something greater through human imperfection.

It is in our complexities and our short-sightedness that transforms these obscure things, into something real and tangible.

What is love without forgiveness? And would art be beautiful, if it were not borne from pain? And why would we need God, if not to acknowledge our own frailty?

I am tired of trying to be perfect. I want to be me, in all its glorious imperfection. I want to be the most perfect version of my imperfect self.