Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bad Mama

My friend Pat gave me this very nice but slightly rude t-shirt from a Belgian rock 'n roll band she's friends with. I showed it to Legs and Noodle and told them I was planning on wearing it when I take them to their first day of school next Tuesday.

No. Not really.

The horrified looks on my children's faces made my day. I just can't help myself sometimes.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fred Astaire equals Joy

Fred Astaire stole my heart when I was seven. My grandmother bribed me with a large bag of M&Ms to accompany her to a double feature of "Top Hat" and "Shall We Dance." I could not believe it was possible for two people to move so effortlessly and with so much joy. I watched goggle-eyed, my head flooding with questions. How did they do all that without missing a beat? How did Fred avoid tripping on Ginger's gown? How did she leap and twirl in those heels without twisting her ankle? Why didn't men dress that way anymore? How many years of ballet lessons - which I loathed - would it take for me to be able to dance that way? Listening to Lola sigh through all the dance sequences, I worried she was going to fall into a swoon and embarrass me. She needed a large Manhattan to revive her after the film and let me have a sip of her drink on the condition that I not tell my grandfather or my mother. That was the beginning of my love affair with Manhattans too.

Who can watch this video and not be gladdened by it? Not me. Do turn up the volume and view it full screen. The Vienna-based duo dZihan & Kamien's downtempo beat on "Stiff Jazz" from their album "Gran Riserva" provides the perfect backdrop to Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger's dazzling footwork. However, I think that it might be Astaire's sister Adele with him in some of the dance sequences, although I could be wrong.

No matter, it's all very uplifting. Especially on days when Facebook is littered with the irritating flotsam of Mafia Wars scores and quiz results of addle-pated friends in their 40s or older who are hell-bent on informing me that they have nothing better to do with their lives apart from using sundry Facebook applications as a monumental time-suck. Friend's sample quiz: What Chocolate Are You? Result: Mars bar. Me: Mars bars are NOT chocolate, you pathetic, muttonheaded galoot.

All right, I'll stop grumping about Facebook lameness now and look at this again. Ah, if only I had the fixings for a Manhattan.

My thanks to the clever person who put these film clips and this music together, and to my lovely friend Mnemosyne who patiently explained how I could embed this video onto my blog.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

To live as flame

It all began with this picture. It was sent to me by my photographer friend Lito Tesoro who took it at the Los Angeles Arboretum. He said it reminded him of my mum Daisy. It is the most beautiful photograph I have seen of a daisy, ever. Click on the image to see it in all its glory, and you'll see what I mean. On July 19, the anniversary of my mother's death, I posted it on my Facebook Wall together with this poem by Mary Oliver, one of my all-time favourite poems.

by Mary Oliver

It is possible, I suppose that sometime
we will learn everything
there is to learn: what the world is, for example,
and what it means. I think this as I am crossing
from one field to another, in summer, and the
mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either
knows enough already or knows enough to be
perfectly content not knowing. Song being born
of quest he knows this: he must turn silent
were he suddenly assaulted with answers. Instead

oh hear his wild, caustic, tender warbling ceaselessly
unanswered. At my feet the white-petalled daisies display
the small suns of their center piece, their -- if you don't
mind my saying so -- their hearts. Of course
I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and
narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know?
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly;
for example -- I think this
as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch --
the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the
daisies for the field.

After seeing that, another dear friend, the poet Luisa Igloria left this response to the Mary Oliver poem on my Wall.

(after Mary Oliver's "Daisies")

But if, then, we knew
everything there was to learn,
neither the mockingbird nor the field
overgrown with daisies would move us;
not the sun that sears overhead
in summer, nor its other tokens
that we carry into the year's
different seasons, reminding us
of loss. Having crossed
from hour to laborious hour,
neither do I know what the world is
nor what it might yet be; only
that for the moment it is sweet
to live as flame, to touch and
taste and turn one's face to another's,
grateful for the company.

by Luisa A. Igloria, 19 July 2009

In the Facebook conversation that unfurled, it turned out that Luisa and Lito knew each other decades ago but lost touch. It was a joyous reunion for the two of them. The daisy chain had worked its magic yet again.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Flower Falls

the petal fell, falling
until the only flower was the falling itself.

from "Water" by Pablo Neruda

My mother Daisy was killed 19 years ago in a powerful 7.7 magnitude earthquake that trampled Baguio, my hometown in the northern Philippines. She was just 50. I was already living in Belgium at the time, and returned home to bury not only the woman who had given life to me, but also large chunks of my former life.

Mama (seated) and me, circa 1983
photo by Wig Tysmans

Much of Baguio was in ruins. The airport runway and all major roads leading to that mountaintop city were heavily damaged, hindering rescue efforts because heavy-lifting equipment and essential supplies could not arrive. The city's 3 hospitals were badly hit and without power. There was no electricity or running water for weeks. All telephone lines were down. This being before the advent of the internet or mobile phones, Baguio was essentially cut off from the rest of the world. The sickly-sweet stench of decomposing flesh was everywhere; that smell still clings tightly to my memory. Crushing as our loss was, we were some of the lucky ones. Mama's was the second body recovered from the rubble of the Hyatt Terraces hotel, where she lived in an 8th floor apartment with Heiner, my German hotelier stepfather who was the hotel's general manager. Many others were not as fortunate. They waited days, weeks, even months before the bodies of their loved ones were recovered. Still others lost their homes. A cousin and a poet friend lost brand new homes into which they had invested all their life savings and unlived dreams.

Grief unhinged me in odd ways. I remember nothing of my hurried trip home or indeed the return journey to Brussels, except that I amassed a collection of 21 Lufthansa coffee spoons which I apparently stole whilst in flight. I had not dabbled in petty theft as a pastime before that. Nor have I taken it up since. Severe insomnia emerged as a more serious side effect of my loss. It dogged me mercilessly for 18 years until Jin Shin Jyutsu released me from its stranglehold last year.

I have only vague memories of Mama's wake in my grandparents' house. Lolo, my grandfather, bore the loss of his firstborn child with great dignity, losing his composure only once to roar at the cups and saucers (which, bizarrely, remained unscathed) in my grandmother's china cupboard, and ask why God couldn't have taken him, an old man, instead. Lola, my grandmother, was the reverse. She crumbled frequently, often surrendering melodramatically to the pain of her bereavement. Lola's blood pressure rocketed off the scales, demented as she was by grief, and yet frantic that all our visitors be welcomed and properly fed. Lola's younger sister, a doctor, occasionally had to sedate her with Valium to stop her from becoming too overwrought when relatives and friends came to call in the afternoons and evenings.

Most heartrending of all was watching my stepfather Heiner soldier on. Although devasted by his wife's death, he was very conscientious of his duties to his hotel, his fallen ship, where over 50 hotel guests and employees had died. None of us could imagine what it must have been like for one person to become homeless, jobless and a widower all at once and, against the most hellish odds, find ways to rescue others who lay trapped alive in the rubble. Although his corporate bosses told him to take time off, he refused to hear of it. Heiner remained on site to supervise the rescue and recovery effort until the last body had been found. He also stayed on to oversee the demolition of the hotel, a process that took months. Natural disasters create heroes; he was mine and always will be.

Noemi, a feisty young woman who worked as our cook for many years before leaving to start a family with our driver Romy, astounded us when she showed up a few days before Mama's funeral. Her wraith-like form appeared at the kitchen door one sodden afternoon, hungry, bedraggled and shoeless. She had walked alone for three days up a mountain entombed in shock, fog and landslides to pay her last respects to my mother. Until then, I thought I knew what loyalty meant. Noemi's unexpected arrival redefined it for me. After a wash, first aid for her wounded feet, and a long nap, she threw herself into cooking and cleaning and organised the rest of the help who were walking around in a daze like the rest of us.

Of the funeral itself I have scant recollection. We were astonished at the number of people who showed up at the cemetery, a considerable distance outside the city. It was difficult for anyone to get around because many roads were impassable, and strict petrol rationing kept people housebound save for vital journeys. In post-earthquake Baguio, the social obligation to attend other people's funerals was no longer considered compulsory. Besides, with so many dead, how did one prioritise whose funeral to attend?

At Mama's funeral, strangers clasped my hands in theirs and spoke of her kindness to them: a seminarian she had sent to theological school, hotel staff whose children's birthdays she never forgot, a struggling painter whose work she sold without taking a commission, a flower seller whose ailing mother she used to visit. Even in death our Daisy continued to bloom. As the hearse containing her coffin drew close to her burial plot, a tremendous aftershock shook the ground. From behind a large rock close to where I stood emerged an enormous cloud of white butterflies. I shivered as their wings brushed against me. In that instant, I remembered that Mama had loved butterflies and bees. She had always filled her garden with plants that attracted them; she'd watch them for hours. She often said the simple white butterflies symbolised her best. Suddenly, there they were. It was a moment of sublime synchronicity that thrilled my heart and my imagination.

After the funeral was over, the heavens opened and torrential rain came down thick as stair rods. My grandmother finally collapsed, wailing that her daughter would be soaked. The fact that my mother was dead and buried in a coffin six feet in the ground meant nothing to Lola. She could not be consoled. I held my grandmother's prostrate body in my arms, neither of us able to fully comprehend the loss of the woman who bound us together with a chain of kinship, history and love.

Only then did I remember it was my birthday. The day the earth claimed my mother a second time, I turned thirty.