By Rica Bolipata Santos
I was born writing. Truly. I don’t mean this in a pretentious sort-of-way, intent to impress you with the inevitability of fate or destiny. It is simply the truth – having been born in a family where artistic pursuit was the highest value. We knew not how to be anything else. And so our childhood years were spent making music and making plays and making art.
A favorite uncle of mine would give us these calendars and planners from his place of work and I would always get the biggest one so I could write longer. There was nothing more pleasurable than writing longer. I can still see my hand gliding across the pages of the Insular Life planner, writing down, in the beginning, paragraphs from books I had been reading; long lines that touched me or moved me. I don’t think this was writing but rather chronicling – the chronicle of a birth foretold. For now, I was in love with the words of others. It would take some time to make my own words.
In Grade 5, I discovered something life-altering. At the back of the book I was reading was an invitation to join an organization that was working on helping children afflicted with MS. There were boxes you could tick of how best to help and the first requirement was to tick the box of your country. Philippines had no box. And so I did the next best thing and wrote the organization and asked for advice on how to proceed.
I still remember getting the envelope from my father’s office; following the rules of how to write a letter from my Grade 3 class; depositing it on the desk of my father’s secretary with the admonition that it be mailed the next day. Three weeks later the organization wrote me. It was handwritten and from the Director. He apologized that at the time their organization did not operate in the Philippines but that they would do something about that really soon. He praised my doggedness and faith.
Holding his letter in my hand, there was a feeling of exhiliration, of accomplishment; of understanding what words could do. I could do more than copy, I could make my own words and my words in turn could do something. There was no stopping me then and I wrote endlessly – stories (one was about an Olympic swimmer and his coach), plays (this one had a ghost in it), poems, songs, even two-lined witticisms. I have no memories of studying only of either reading (which my mother allowed me to skip school for) or writing. High school was all about writing for other people, giving them away as birthday and Christmas presents. I made no copies because there was a recklessness to it too; a feeling that it was all ephemeral anyway and that it’s beauty was in the act itself. Product was just something to give away.
I packed away writing when I became a teacher. Somehow, fear had gotten into the picture. You could call it cowardice too and that would be okay. But it became difficult to become an artist publicly in a family that had become too public artistically. Suddenly, adolescence, insecurity, desire for parental love, a feeling of worthlessness made writing no longer a joy but a pointless endeavor. Nothing I could write could ever become as good as anything my musical siblings could contribute to the world, so why even try? My parents were writers so they always had something to say.
So I pursued something else and continued writing on heaps and heaps of journals. It was my appendage, a third kidney or lung, a necessary second heart and for a while it was enough. I can no longer remember or even know for sure what happened to make it just not enough anymore. Maybe it was reaching my 30s, or surviving the first decade of teaching, or having children, or the exercise of keeping a garden? But suddenly, like a seed, I was ready to do the painful work of cracking my shell and coming into the light. I was ready to be born again.
I don’t think I wanted to be a writer, truly. I think I just wanted to write and I know it seems like that’s just semantics but what I mean by that is I didn’t want to become famous or important or anything like that. I just wanted to write in the light and no longer in secret. Which means I just wanted to be good at it.
We are taught as writers, and taught by Mom Edith specifically, that as writers, we must become sensitive to symbols, to signs, to little things that lead to prophecy; to mundane materials in the world that lead to a kind of inevitability when we create. I look back to arriving in Dumaguete in 2005 in my mind’s eye, and see if my memoirist’s spirit can pick up on something.
I remember the little cafeteria on the ground floor where we were housed. Ginia Villanueva, my roommate and I were always the first to arrive for breakfast, honed by years of motherhood to wake up early. There was a kind of bread there (I’ll decide it’s cheese bread) that we absolutely loved. As one left the cafeteria, one would turn right, then left, then left again and yet another left to get to our workshop place. My journal was red and large and given by my sister. All the clothes I brought were from ukay-ukay. I had not yet learned how to shape my eyebrows. There were plates of little candies and coffee served was San Miguel. I was afraid of Whitney because she seemed so brave. I was afraid of Anina and Peachy too because they were from Ateneo and I didn’t want to disappoint them in any way. Mikael always sat across from me and I never felt cool enough to sit beside him.
Our favorite restaurant was Persian and I learned to love yoghurt with my chicken. Peachy never ordered rice. I did laundry and checked my email at the internet shop two streets away from the restaurant. At 6 am and 5 pm, I took walks along the seaside and cried because I missed the children. The young people went out at night and I stayed in my room, read the works for the next day and slept early. Gosh was I just afraid. But three things happened that would make me brave.
One afternoon after workshop, I found myself having coffee with a group of us and Atty. Ernest Superal-Yee. I sat there, quiet, totally uneasy in such situations and he was talking about what good writing was when he suddenly held my hand and recited verbatim an entire paragraph of mine. I remember Chitchat holding my other hand and whispering “don’t forget this moment.”
Second, my first essay was skewered. That was truly a baptism of fire. I wanted to cry so badly but knew to do so would be bad form. To join a workshop is to open oneself up to criticism. You must be prepared for it. You must be prepared to not be liked and not have your creation liked. At some point in the arguments between forces, the Iowa writer beside me turned to me and said, “as far as I’m concerned, you are a beautiful writer.” What to make of this then? There was an important lesson I learned early enough – to know how to criticize criticism.
The last week before the end of the workshop, I went home to check on the children. I passed by my father’s house to say goodbye and an angel whispered in my ear not to go. I thought it was just more of my fear because I still had one essay for workshop to go. That evening, while asleep in Dumaguete my phone rings (and yes I switch to present tense deliberately) and it is my sister who informs me my father is about to die.
The rest of the workshop is a blur. I am able to attend the last day because all flights are in the afternoon. Mom hugs me as she gives me my certificate. No words pass between us. My essay that day is loved and I wonder if people are just being kind. My father dies by dawn. His death frees me from all fear because the thing I fear most has happened and I have survived. I am proven right: everything is ephemeral so better to be reckless than safe.
Dumaguete shape-shifts and becomes this mythical place I was when my father died. It becomes the last happy place. It has become the place where I was last naïve. And wonder of wonders, after all that, I finally know I’m a real writer and Dumaguete has become my new place of birth.