Choosing to be happy*

It has been four years or so since I graduated from college, and the past four years left me a bit disgruntled, dissatisfied, and aimless, even angry. At some point I began to question my motives for staying in Manila, teaching Literature (a subject I did not study in college) to undergraduate students in a university on Katipunan Avenue. At any given point, while on a cramped train for my daily commute to one of the three jobs I currently hold, or while walking in the rain to my next class, I would question the wisdom of the choices I have made, my existence, the reason why I am where I am now. At any given point, while in my class in graduate school, or writing a paper due the following day, I would feel out of place, lost maybe. What brought me here? What are these for?

I left home for college more than eight years ago. It was an inexorable day the Chinese protagonist in Jorge Luis Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths would refer to as “day without premonitions or symbols”. Looking back, I sometimes think I should have never left home; I should have just stayed in the province, enrolled myself in a university in the nearby city of General Santos, be with people whose familiarity led me to feel that constant sickening ennui then, and live a life released from complications.

I embarked on a personal odyssey, though to a home I imagined I belonged, and chased Fate in the big city. And that day without symbols changed me forever.

Now I understand the hesitation, a subdued abhorrence, of the character of my favorite novel, Tomas, for symbols. I have chosen heaviness thinking the choice will lend meaning to my curious and starry-eyed 16-year old self then. My search for “something higher” caused this spiritual vertigo, this fear of falling.

And an unconscious desire to fall, says Kundera, “the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves”.

I do not have any intention of letting myself slip down the slope of existentialist rage for I am completely aware I shall never recover from this existentialist hole unscathed. I believe the exercise is not only a complete waste of time but also fatal.

But these questionings, far from being philosophical, are, to me, as corporeal and visceral as corporeal and visceral can get. I am enraged. And being this sensuously enraged is beautiful. It is not mere abstraction.

How I hate philosophizing!

I am in my mid-20s. They say this age places one at the pinnacle of his vitality. But too many times I saw myself irreparably exhausted, dragging myself in doing the things I once loved doing, being on the verge of running amuck. All because of the unfulfilled promises of this vitality.

For too many times, I have feared that those little cracks have already surreptitiously made their way into the dark crevices of my being and have already eaten me from the inside out and that what is left of me now is a mass of bloody flesh incapable of distinguishing the real from the fictional.

Below layers of fictive security our daily routines deceptively make us feel we possess is a reality so shaky, shifting, and unstable. Most people my age would disagree with me, vehemently judging my cynicism as vain, if not selfish, as I am a product of the comforts bestowed upon me by the equally frivolous and elitist institution of higher learning that situates itself in a country in the third world and a premiere state university that touts itself the bastion of liberal ideas amidst the crushing weight of ugliness, corruption, poverty, and hopelessness surrounding it.

One day I shall pack my bags, say adieu to my life in Manila that I used to love and learned to detest (though these diverging feelings of love and detestation, in some very rare moments, converge).

One day I shall redeem myself from the routine and the make-believe.

And go on an odyssey back to my real home.

I think of my situation now as being caught in deep shit. How I love to say this word, shit. It is liberating. It is free of abstraction.

Shit is the highest good so long as one is not caught, deeply, in it.

A week ago, I took a jeepney ride on campus going to Quezon Avenue MRT station when I happened to be seated beside a classmate of mine in grad school who studied Literature in the university where I am teaching the subject now. Our conversation meandered until toward the end of our trip the subject of our talk settled on world-weariness. She related to me how bad it felt to be jobless and added that the stigma of being a graduate of that exclusive school along Katipunan and be unemployed was just too much to bear, and how she felt, during that very moment, palpable weariness of the world.

I guess, she is as deeply entrenched in shit as I, though the fashion of our being entrenched differs. She wants to escape it; I, on the other hand, wallow and linger in it, though maybe not for long.

For some, those who are lucky in the real sense of the word, still have that choice. For most, the choice is not theirs. I am grateful that I can still consider myself to be part of the former group. After all, I am still afforded choice probably because of my education, my age, my ability to use language to my advantage, my meager savings in the bank, my mother’s prayer, or simply because of sheer luck. And this opportunity I am exhausting to the fullest.

I always tell my students that being young gives them enough excuse to commit mistakes and to learn from these mistakes, that failing should not be something to be afraid of because they are at the best time of their lives to commit mistakes without having to face the grave repercussions that adults committing stupid mistakes face. And that they are lucky to be given this choice. And that this choice is theirs.

Although I feel miserable at times, it’s a little comforting to know that this misery is self-inflicted, and that I can choose, if I want, to be happy. That I can choose to end this spectacle, be kinder to myself, and, from a note my favorite professor in university once wrote me, “smell the flowers”.

*a reflection written more than a year ago I unearthed while searching for an old college picture a few minutes ago.

Stops and interruptions

I was holding a thick paperback of Borges’s collection of non-fictions on a train going to Boni, reading portions of some short articles when the ride is not too bumpy straining my eyes that have gone more fragile as the days go by, or during every stop. There is something about these short stops and interruptions that affects how I read a piece of literature. Because I very rarely find time to stay in one place for longer than an hour, except during my classes in grad school that stretch for three hours, I consider my time spent on these train coaches my only reading time. I take no heed of the population density inside these trains, have gone oblivious to the human stench, and have learned to keep my ears shut from trivial conversations that interest me no more.

To me, reading is an act of aggression, a war waged against a repressive environment that does its best to keep one from that intimate contact with the written language. I find it very ironic that while I teach reading Literature, I have always been at a lack of time to let the ideas I read simmer, reflect on their implications to my understanding, and in worst cases, read. And so, I have to set aside the limitations posed by my economics, academics, and the personal to somehow still find time to sit on a bench, or stand while one hand is holding a cold metal railing, and the other a book, and read as if books are as illicit as a cap of E. Assuming that the unlawfulness of books gives its reader a sense of power (diabolical or divine, it does not matter).

The stops and the interruptions at first functioned as wide, perilous voids I needed to cross in order to get  to the opposite end that promises understanding and multi-layered meanings, but, as in all other things that began as a debility, getting used to these stops and interruptions allowed me to use them to my advantage. Each of these I spend looking at the horizon, or at close-ups of people who are, like me, packed like sardines inside a nearly dilapidated train coach. These long shots and close-ups are observations, mental accounts of humanity in various contexts that are reflected, nuanced, critiqued, pitied, adored, laughed at, pilloried, worshipped, lambasted, but generally, celebrated in Literature, allowing me to get so close to what it’s like being human.

There is no such thing as a ‘perfect reading experience’, only experiences that give a book, that is, if it is truly great, as many intimations as the souls drinking it.

Thinking about immortality while listening to John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jetplane”


To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death; what is divine, terrible, incomprehensible, is to know that one is immortal – Jorge Luis Borges, The Immortal

Borges, my favorite writer these days (as ‘favorite’ is a word in eternal flux), never fails to surprise me with his paradoxes bordering on the eccentric. I always bring this gray paperback wherever I go, reading and rereading his essays and trying to go back to the pages I’ve already understood thinking that I might have missed something and that I have misunderstood him. Sometimes I feel like he’s laughing at my gullibility in believing in his historical accounts of people I have never heard of. Most of the time I cannot bring myself to believe in anything he says but I know that dismissing them outright as impossible is a lost chance of looking at the world in his perspective.

Let’s take for instance his take on immortality. According to him, in spite of religions, the idea of immortality is very rare. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity profess immortality, but the veneration they render this world proves they believe only in it since they destine all other worlds, in infinite number, to be its reward or punishment. But immortality entails neither beginning nor end, that all things happen to all men, that each life is the effect of the preceding and engenders the following, but none determines the totality.

After a harrowing day, I, for a moment, was incapable of thinking about my immortality. And it occurred to me that from that moment I’ve forgotten thinking about my eventual demise until this time, I was immortal.

At least according to Borges.


Jorge Luis Borges and how to de-legendize the man called Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson and Madonna

Since I commenced reading Borges’s essays last night and was introduced to the “labyrinthine and enclosed enigmas designed to be understood and participated in by man”, the potential of problematizing and opening up of the possibilities of charting the uncharted complexities of the human mind, in the word of the former Philippine president Fidel Ramos, titillated me.

While reading, I could not help but ask myself this inevitable question:

How is it possible that other people are endowed with a cosmopolitan mind to acknowledge and comprehend the intricacies of existence while other are left to wallow in their everyday boredom?

And indeed, I was caught by Borges’s apparently absurd way of looking at our seemingly orderly world. He appeared to have created a world in complete pandemonium and from here, using his absurd philosophy, created a universe that is more orderly than before. Or how in his unique universe the dreamer becomes the dreamed, or the writer being written about, or Hamlet being a spectator of his own play.

Or Michael Jackson becoming one of his audience and all his audience each becoming a Michael Jackson.

The world did not express its fanaticism toward Michael Jackson because of his exceptional talent and charisma. The world created Michael Jackson to explain its fanaticism to the unknown, be it greatness, death, or life. The man’s life became caught within this “stupor, exaltation, alarm and jubilance” that perhaps explains the paradox of his existence that was both comedic and tragic.

“We are all at once writers, readers and protagonists of some eternal story; we fabricate our illusions, seek to decipher the symbols around us and see our efforts overtopped and cut short by a supreme Author: but in our defeat, as in the Mournful Knight’s, there can come the glimpse of a higher understanding that prevails at our expense.”  Irby, J.E.  (Ed) (2000), Jorge Luis Borges Labyrinths. London: Penguin Classics.

To the next reader of this book


I was already creating this post in my mind while reading the synopses of the paperbacks in National Bookstore at Robinsons Pioneer. Without any feeling of remorse I paid the cashier my hard-earned 1250 pesos (27 USD), for the three books I bought: A collection of stories and essays by Jorge Luis Borges called Labyrinths, a novel called Love in the Time of Cholera (which I have already read while I was studying in the university but left my copy to my sister who is now studying English in college) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and an anthology of readings on Ernest Hemingway’s works.

All the books, after I finished reading them, are the dirtiest, the most disfigured, and the most heavily annotated I’ve seen, that is, if I bought them myself, not those that were borrowed from libraries, of course. I write on the margin of each page my commentaries and questions that can be profound or shamefully stupid, insightful or carelessly mundane. My eldest sister, who is my opposite when it comes to the kinds of books we read and the way we handle them, often have words on the appearance of the books after I’m done reading them. She’s the kind who carefully covers them with plastic cellophane and places them neatly in racks, not on dusty tables where they are stacked on top of each other in a tospy-turvy manner as I usually do to them. She said I am very harsh with my books. Maybe I am.

It never occurred to me to own any of my books because I often leave them behind whenever I move places. I marvel at the possibility of changes they will bring to the lives of their next readers, of the thoughts the new readers will have on the book’s previous reader. What I only carry with me are their substance, their spirit. The multiplicity of these entities disallows us to own a book. No one owns them.

The books I bought from secondhand shops, and there are a lot of them, carry with them the mystique of their existence in the hands of their former owners. What could have they been thinking while reading the words printed on the white paper? Did they read the book in a coffee shop while waiting for their lovers, riding the train on their way to work, or while inside the toilet defecating? These books have stories other than the stories printed in them. And I want to share this experience to other readers, who in the process of reading the books, will also unknowingly add their own stories.

So tonight, sacrificing a fine dinner in a fancy restaurant, I am folding the first few pages of Borges’s Labyrinths (this will make them last longer) and starting to read the first few pages. Doing so, I am also leaving the imprints of my humble existence.

On being an exile

I have been reading a short essay written by Jorge Luis Borges, and he talked about how being an “exile” brings out parts of our personalities that is unknown to us, and will forever be unknown to us, unless we allow ourselves to be exiled or for us to be exiled by force (which can be in any form such as that of the state, an organization, or the bigger society).

Here, I shall be talking about throwing one’s self away, figuratively, that is, one chooses to embark on the feat of a self-exile. Consciously choosing to leave, and here it means physically deserting anything that has to do with a secure life, and living in a place that is foreign, a place where doing something for comfort will prove burdensome. Barriers will include inability to communicate one’s self, lack of cultural knowledge, ethnocentricity, etc.

Just like all ethnographic researches, the researcher, or as in our case the exiled, faces several stages of coming to terms with himself in relation to his environment and its actors. Roughly, there will be a period of much patronizing and romanticizing, that is, the exiled will think that everything around him is better than what he has left behind. It will be followed a realization that things around him are different and therefore will tax his understanding of all the cultural truths as well as subtleties in his new environment. This will awaken the hidden ethnocentric (and xenophobic) character of our subject which lead to a gap and further distancing from everything around him and creating a world of his own making. Although this may sound pessimistic, this is necessary for the subject to create a giant leap towards understanding and eventually living in harmony with the foreign people surrounding him.

The third period, which I will refer from hereon as ‘distancing’, is a very crucial step because this is where the hidden and repressed selves of our subject surface and thereby allowing different personae to make themselves known to him. Here, creativity, appreciation of one’s former society, and objective probing of the world in general are strengthened and are highlighted.

In distancing, the mind of the subject shifts from a passive, non-observer of events, objects, cultural truths and subtleties, and idiosyncracies, into a more active, peering, and critical entity. Interestingly, this also leads to a blossoming of the artistic mind, scientific inquisitiveness, and more understanding of the inner self as well as the emotion. Distancing allows the exiled to have a hold of his world and shape it in a way that can be radical, sometimes, but most of the times more reformative, and in general beneficial. It can be in a form of literary works such as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or Tolstoi’s novels War and Peace and Annakarenina, or Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

It is, therefore, necessary, especially for the young people, to travel and to detach themselves from the mundane and the usual and immerse themselves in a world devoid of comfort and security.