Poetics: Ma. Elena Paulma

Where I Write From


I write from many places. I write from Butuan, divided by a river which is spanned by a bridge. It is not really my home as I am still on my way to that place where it is safe just to be. To understand where I come from and who I am, these I confess, are my very selfish reasons for writing, even as I continue to search for that room I can call not just my own, but from where I can call to many others.

I write from Tiniwisan where my grandparents settled as farmers, all the way from Pangasinan. They speak Ilocano, and we their grandchildren speak Cebuano, in a place whose native language is Butuanon. But I write in English because I had to pay a fine of one peso if I spoke the Ilonggo I learned while in Iloilo.  Once caught, the only choice left for me was either to let go of a bag of Chippy, or a ride home. Most of the time, I walked home. I have never really stopped walking.

I write from the dirt road my grandparents walked for eleven kilometres carrying  baskets of mangoes to sell in the market so that the first three children could have an education and send the rest of the seven siblings to school. I write from beneath the mango trees where the women gather to talk about their husbands and children.  I write from a solitary seat a short distance away from my cousins come home from their overseas jobs as waiters and ship deckhands, all of them married and waiting for me to make the same  mistake.

I write from Pili Drive, the street of my childhood in Butuan City, from the pink house fronted by bougainvilleas, across a huge warehouse standing next to a playground filled with twenty-five children from three households, spilling out onto the streets to frighten the tricycle drivers. I write from the kitchen of our house, washing a stack of dishes while my brothers played cards in the sala.

I write because my father worked in the Talacogon mountains, way down the Agusan River, as a manager of an Indian-owned logging company. He was found in the forests three days after he was shot down by NPA’s, so they say.  I write because my mother and aunts were teachers and when I eventually became one, a grade school classmate would look at me with pity because I have become “just” a teacher.

I write because in high school, I wore my sister’s hand-me-down uniform. In the picture, my light blue skirt stands out amongst the new deep blue skirt of my classmates.  I write from UP, that place where I had to speak in Tagalog or be scolded by a student leader for speaking in the English I had to pay for with my snack money in my younger years. I write because when I came to Manila, not everyone knew where Butuan was.  I write from behind the walls of the convent I lived in for five years and finally left, after realizing this wasn’t the room I had been looking for after all.

I write what I write because there are many, many ways of telling stories, and there are many stories to tell, as many as there are days in one life, and in one life, many persons, and for each person, many faces and spaces, for their many lives. There is never anything new in each story that I tell, for each thought and each word is built on other thoughts, other words, other stories. I come from all directions and there is pain in every leaving, for I know that whoever goes and whoever stays is not me anymore. There is no way I can ever always be, no way I can ever be fully known,  nor shall I ever know anything with certainty,  so I leave pieces of “me” on sheets of paper, hoping to be found. Being always neither here nor there is not a very pretty place to be, because one can never be sure about who one truly is, and therefore what one wants to say or how to say it.   To be one of  many voices, to be read – is this not why I write?

Pain.  That’s what this is all about, this reading of lives.  It both binds and destroys, it gives birth.  Any grief begins with paralyzing disbelief, soon rising as anger, firing the battle within.  Fact becomes fiction, the real is transformed by the imaginary, reading is writing is reading, the telling of the story.  They say the last stage of grief is acceptance – sometimes, it takes months, or maybe years, sometimes it takes a lifetime.  Meanwhile, I tell stories, like a palm reader, I read my many lives.

I now live in Cagayan de Oro, another city divided by a river. I am forever crossing the bridge that links the two banks of this river. In between the places I want to escape from and those that I seek – this is where I write from.

Writing is a reading of where we come from, and most of the time, we come from middle spaces, where there will always be more than one thing, all at once, a revelation of what is not understood, a rediscovery of what we think has been lost and forgotten, merging and re-emerging the way water shifts through sand.

Writing always borrows from the realm of both imagination and truth. It is about both pleasure and pain, one unable to exist without the other.  It draws from what was, what already is, and what will be.  It causes the birth of words and thoughts and the death of the causes of these births. The effect results in a recreation of that which was only vaguely known.  The act of writing hides even as it reveals things that we already know, yet do not know until they are written.  The very act of putting words on paper destroys that which motivated the act. We have the words, however.

Sometimes, in the middle of the night or just before dawn, I wake up suddenly and must reach for pen and paper.  Many times, I do not know what my pen will write, or where the words will lead me. All I know is that something needs to be written and the hand that is needed for the writing happens to be mine.

Perhaps  what awakens me is the memory of the sleepless nights spent on rooftops with friends,  or lying in bed with a favourite aunt feet propped against the wall, or on porches with  a visiting cousin or two, as we watch the sun falling, and a hundred and one stories later, rising again.

Ate, where are you from?” ask the children, smiling, their tattered shirts blowing in the slight breeze that stinks.  I am a passing tourist come for a view of the mountain, a look at their shanties, a taste of lives lived within sheets of discarded iron roofs, plywood, and cardboard boxes  tied or nailed together.  Within, families sift through found “treasures” from the rich garden of garbage outside. Among these treasures are the clothes that they wear,  and the food that they eat.  Should I tell them I come from a place where lanes are wide and huge trees grow, where the skies show all the colors, where buildings are as tall as this mountain, where my  room has concrete walls painted white? The fumes rise like incense from every crevice, every gap between and beneath the unnamable flood of waste that make up the mountain. It is to the smoking mountain that these people give their daily supplication, bent over its face, seeking.

My hands reach out for a tree of steel leafed with multi-colored  skirts, blouses,  and gowns on fragile hangers. They surround me, these tributes to womanhood, silently begging to be bought, the lines and layers of shoes crying out in their little high-heeled and strappy voices: me! me! me! The tired old black shoes on one side don’t even bother to say anything, resigned to their roles as shelf-fillers, much like the bench-sitters clustered in little cushioned islands scattered all over the mall.  There are many of them here – a variety of uncles, dads, boyfriends, brothers sitting, waiting,  as they might sit and play cards in the sala while you’re up to your armpits in dishwater, and you ask for help and they say sure and go on playing and you wish you could just break the glasses and throw away the plates and run away forever.

Some children are running around, playing hide and seek, as a sprinkling of mothers and daughters wander through, carrying gowns for their JS prom, I suppose.  If  I was that teenager following her harassed Mom, I’d be carrying that short, wine colored gown without sequins or ruffles.  Simple, classic, alluring.  My ate would fuss over my hair, but she’s in the US now,  ran away forever.

A lady in high heels, mini skirt and glittery black blouse begins to flip through the hangers bearing pastel colored suits made of banana cloth.  The orange tags say 50%.  Hmmm, will this fit? She holds the blouse against her body, and I stop myself from saying out loud, Nope.  Hmm, the shocking green pants? Nope. Maybe the deep fuchsia pink blouse embroidered with flowers on the shoulders…and I realize it is the same brand of clothing I wore when I had my First Vows. I had exchanged the red orange dress bought for me by one Sister for the staid blue blouse and skirt with embroidered sleeves. If I had stuck with the orange dress, I would have kept it after I left the convent, but I was different then, or I was me stuck in a different image of myself.  In my mind, there is this someone wearing a mini skirt, and that simple classic gown, in rubber shoes playing hide and seek.

I finally find what I’m looking for  –  a whole shelf-full of blue vases.

The rest of the blue vase fell to the floor one day.    The beautiful blue glass lay in curious patterns on the floor.  And I felt that I must write about it – the forgetting, the fall, the holding on, the remembrance of this beautiful vase, whose curves and color once belonged to my Mom, which I took, and kept, and broke. She didn’t really give it to me.  I sort of took it from her.  That’s the way I have always seen it – her reluctant giving, my guilty taking – shreds of love becoming shards in my heart, a never-ending ache for beautiful, curved, blue vases.

There was a little girl in the mall, her little voice ringing above the sea of clothes:  “So where are we really going, Mom?! We’ve been going around for hours and now we’re back again.  See, this is where we came from.  Is this what you’re looking for? This is it, Mom. Can we stop now?”

One cannot say how or when one can go up to Boliney, a town high up in the mountains of Abra, as far away to the north of the Philippine archipelago as anyone from the south could reach.   One is never certain what day or what time the lone jeepney will  arrive or leave.  Speed is irrelevant.  One is not even sure if  the destination will ever be reached.  The whole world and your whole life lies within the patched up walls of the creaking, bouncing, swaying jeepney, with  ravines to the right, and  a hard rock wall to the left.  There is no other way to go but forward.  Sometimes, the jeepney must back up a little so we can get over the really rough parts.   The view is magnificent, but it is best to close one’s eyes, and surrender.

Lira has not surrendered yet.  She is a patient at the Spinal Ward of the Orthopaedic Hospital. In a grocery hold-up, she was shot by accident, and was  paralyzed from the neck down. Rage consumes her waking hours and our daily conversations. For her, there can be no climbing of any mountain, nor swimming in any river, nor playing in the streets as I had done with the children of Boliney.   For her, not the green trees nor the fresh air atop the magnificent mountains which my Tinguian friends, bent over the rice fields, hardly notice.

What difference between a broken back or a back bent from dawn till dusk? They look to their feet half-buried in mud as dull as the stained ceilings of the spinal ward, or the patched surface of  a wasting mountain.  Bent over the rice fields or the smoking mountain, or  trapped in their beds for life,  their next meal is the only future. Reduced to the everyday, life takes on its purest form. One patient offers a cup of noodles to another, a whole Tinguian community stops working to honor and help a bereaved family, and a gang of laughing children dance their way down a mountain of garbage.  There is a way out, after all.

Just yesterday, my Mom tells me about a war story in Butuan, of the baby sister she had been carrying when she fell over a log as they ran away from the Japanese when she was four years old. I never knew I had an Aunt Patricia. Her head was crushed from the fall. I think about the altar I had created of the blue vase, and what color are the shards in my mother’s heart.

I come from Butuan. The road to Boliney never ends.

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