Sometimes I venture far into unfamiliar streets for the sheer pleasure of discovering what I might find, a bend on the road, the stoop of an old tree, any sight or sound that tells the story of a life. This afternoon when I looked up, I saw birds perched on a street lamp under a dark puffy cloud, and strangely, after seeing this, some peace descended upon me. And I thought maybe this is why I take walks, to hush the heart’s murmurs and find peace.
Photo by Haila Alkhamis of her mother's hands in prayer
Go where your heart takes you, into the wild places of your imaginings, into a thick forest’s hidden clearing, onto the solemn blue of the sea. Delight in the luminous stars of a strange city somewhere, where the air smells of perennials, and the water dances and bounces under an open sky. Bathe in sunlight, bathe in rain, bathe in the sweetness of someone’s embrace. Run into the fog of an early autumn morning, past the tree-lined boulevard, past the windows of houses where you see the shimmering faces of children dreaming their first dreams, as you once did as a child in this house where I sit by the window thinking of your whereabouts.
March with the young and old, for the voiceless and wronged, march to the mad drum of your heart. And when you are tired, be still with the trees, lie flat on the open ground and gaze at the moon, at the galaxy faraway, at the life you have yet to live. Listen to the music of the world coming from sparrows, from a thunder’s rumble, from a street awash with falling rain.
And when you come home, tell me all about the adventures and shades of heartache, how the meandering road led you to a sunlit meadow, how you finally found what you were looking for, a life you crossed oceans to reach, and how, wherever you went, grace followed you like a shadow, like a persistent memory, like a mother’s prayer.
It is the seventh day of the new year as I write this. I am trying to remember this time last year, what it was like, what I was doing, but nothing distinct comes to mind. I imagine I might have been staring at a computer screen, or reading on the train, or walking to the taco shop. I might have been daydreaming as usual, or moaning about something trivial. It might have been an ordinary mild winter in Los Angeles, and everyone’s heart is going through the cycles of living: love, heartache, ambivalence, hope, contentment, frustration.
But here are a few facts: As I was going about my life, little did I know that sometime in the last week of February, a loved one would pass away in her sleep, and a day before my birthday in March, the city would be in lockdown. Little did I know that life would take a different turn, a dark, anxiety-laden turn that would go on for months, and sometime in June, a loved one would appear in my dream and a few days after, would bid me goodbye forever. Little did I know that grief would not end there, hundreds of thousands would die from a pandemic, and towards the end of the year, my partner’s father would pass away, and then my best friend’s father would die too. Little did I know that I would lose other things as well – faith, laughter, hope.
And you, world, carried on with your casual indifference, your silence. And I too carried on with my strange, uncertain, grief-stricken life. Chocolate for breakfast, books for lunch, Radiohead for dinner, sometimes Chopin (once, I succumbed to Phil Collins). Vast hollowness in between hours. A parade of memories, then silence, then sadness. A dark empty room.
Then one evening, I looked out the window and saw a brilliant sky, and it was as though I had never seen a brilliant sky like that in my life. It seemed as though, as if by magic, I stepped out of darkness into some kind of light, and for a moment, there was no sorrow. For a moment, life made sense. For a moment, I did not feel lonely. You say nothing but you send me your stars and galaxies. You require no language. You are trying to reach me, and I am beginning to sense you everywhere: Sunlight on the window sill, hummingbirds in January, jacaranda trees, cobalt blue sea. There is music in the air, in the rustle of leaves. And just this morning: Hyacinths in the middle of winter sprouting like little signs of hope.
Dear world, I am beginning to feel that you and I are conversing in a secret language. I recognize your presence, and I give you my gratitude. My heart, I feel, is on the mend. My spirit delights in your marvels. I know, one day, all will be fine. I will be fine.
Quiet day, you are sitting on a chair looking out the window, and you see a section of the sky, and suddenly you are in tears. You don't know where it comes from, if it's grief or the echoes or the emptiness, or the way the serene sky reminds you how you always take things for granted - the pile of unworn shirts, the ripe persimmons still in the grocery bag, all the occasions of your life when your mother unfailingly sent you a card, that was her thing - handwritten notes at the back of photos, "love" written on the edge of postcards, though she never said it to you and she never will. But here you are on a glorious autumn day, sun beam on your window, holding all those cards, feeling so loved. Outside, the world gathers itself to astonish you. An errant wind wakes the drowsy leaves. The moonflower refuses to wither. Wordless music drifts in the air. Isn't it amazing how light always finds you in the right moment, even here, sitting on this chair where you are now swept in a calm out of darkness, cries hushed, your heart restored, radiant and full.
Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is check my plants. I meticulously check their fruits (if any), their leaves, their height, the dryness of the soil. I check for new growth, or if existing flowers have reached their full bloom. Then I sit for a while with them, bask in joy and gratitude, commune with the small patch of greenery, my own small slice of nature.
Today it is the wildflower that catches my eye. It is bright pink and has tiny yellow flowers within it. It is bold and stunning, it stands strong and confident like a goddess. And when you look closer, when you see the details of its beauty, you are drawn to it forever. And suddenly, I am in tears. This wildflower, this beautiful, bright wonder of nature, reminds me of my dearest friend, Gypsy, who left this world too soon.
"Thank you and I love you." Those were the last words she texted me on 17th June of this awful year. I am laden with strange aches. I wipe my tears and think of her mother and her daughters, Bella and Luma. I think of her husband, Gregory, who is also a dear friend of mine. I curse and get angry without knowing to whom I should address my anger. Then my heart aches some more, and I do not know how a heart can hold so much sadness. These two, Gypsy and Gregory, got engaged on my birthday. They left me a giddy voicemail to tell me about their engagement. These two are mad people – madly in love, mad to love, mad to give, mad to play music, mad to live life to the fullest. They are bonkers, they are utterly and wonderfully magical. I say are instead of were because that is how I see them then and now, because I have not fathomed completely that she is gone, that Gregory is now alone in their home sitting in the lonely universe of grief. I do not have to sit next to him to hear his heart breaking. Their union was blessed by the universe, years in the making, but when the moment was right, it happened effortlessly as things do when they are meant to fall into place. And if you stopped believing in love, these two will make you believe in it again.
I must tell you about Gypsy. Her resilience shone through her beautiful bright eyes and brightened my grim soul. I had shown up at her door sad, maudlin, philosophical, disagreeable, and always, she greeted me with kindness and indulged me with plenty of wine and conversations. There were many nights when we stayed up past midnight worried about the state of the world as though the world was our child and we had to come up with brilliant ideas to save it. Her home was home to the wayward and creatives, the lost and confused, practically anyone who needed a space to breathe or a place to stay. Through her warmth and generosity of spirit, I had met other kind and creative souls. Through her lovely dinners, I had shared food with people of different faiths from different countries where we shared bread and pasta and asked for a second serving and drank wine. We talked about religion and culture and recipes and Plato and King Solomon. We disagreed and agreed and ate cake and drank more wine and laughed and talked all night long. No one was offensive or rude. No one got hurt. You would think it is possible for people to come to a place bringing their baggage, unique history, present circumstances and get along well. You would think it is possible to live in harmony. You would think it is possible to treat each other decently despite all the differences. It certainly was possible in her home. It was possible, because Gypsy, who had one of the biggest hearts in the world, enabled our hearts to be open too. Kindness begets kindness and it went around again and again in her household that she could not fathom any other way of living.
I plant a seed for her. I touch the soil and let it sit on my hands for a while and I feel a sacred connection to earth. In my hands is the earth's surface made up of minerals, organisms, water, and air, fused together, formed over time. They say it takes hundreds to thousands of years to create an inch of topsoil. In my hands is evidence of the universe's wonder. In my hands I am holding history, magic, brilliance, nature, life all at once. We live in a universe of constant flux and change and we are all mere specks of dust and color and particles molded into a shape for a brief moment before we are being weaved again into another form of existence, gracing the world in a different light and with a different purpose (And when I look at life in this perspective, it makes her absence more natural and less painful). I put the soil in the pot and plant the seed and say a prayer. She will always be in my garden.
Darling, beautiful Gypsy, I don’t know how not to miss you. We can’t have you back in the form that we are accustomed to but we have these: the light you shone is a light we shall pass on to others, the fearless life you lived is one that we shall aspire to, the love you gave is a beacon in our dark moments. Thank you for these gifts. Good night, my silly, sweet, loving Gypsy. You are now an angel. You are now a star in the sky.
Hermie is an 82-year old Filipina woman. She was a former client who grew quite fond of me that even after her case was over, she continued to keep in touch with me. She calls me randomly to invite me to lunch. We meet at the train station near her house, she greets me with an endearing smile and we walk to her favorite restaurants near the station. “Huwag kang mag-alala. Akong mang libre sayo.” Don’t worry, my treat, she says. Like any typical Filipina grandmother, she won’t stop feeding you. You cannot have just one big meal, you must also have Leche Flan after that, or Maja Blanca or Turon. If you want, you can have them all. In the summer, Halo-halo is obligatory. Even if you politely decline the dessert, she will buy them for you anyway. To go, for your merienda later, she’d say. She reminds me of Cebu. She reminds me of my mother and aunts and grandmothers and that food is home and home is kitchen and long family tables and three generations of extended family all gathered together in one house. Home is lechon and adobo and Tupperware filled with food to take home. Home is karaoke and silliness and nosy relatives and your heart swelling with joy. Home is your grandmother’s papery hands touching your cheek as you bid her goodbye.
Photo by Joe Kingston
Her husband passed away last year. Their relatives from Northern California and the East Coast flew to Los Angeles to pay their respects. They respected him a lot, she said, beaming with pride. She lives alone now and I cannot help but wonder about the silence of her house. I wonder about how she must miss their conversations, even their annoyances, the sound of footsteps and tinkering about, the particulars of their everyday life as a married couple for fifty years. She said that for thirty years, she worked as a nurse assistant “wiping people’s asses.” She worked hard, did a lot of overtime, and was able to build a house in Bicol, her husband’s hometown. She saved money to be able to live decently in her retirement. She tells me stories about her life from the time when she was a little girl living in a province in the Luzon area. I let her carry on with her stories because her eyes light up. I let her carry on because the stories are about perseverance and hope and leaving home and arriving at one wherever that is. They are about patience and loving people and fighting for what you believe is righteous and fair. Whenever we part ways, my heart breaks a little at her fragility and I fear that some incident might befall her and there is no one around to help. When I sit on the train on my way home from our lunch together, I often feel a renewed hope for the world, and how wonderful it is that an 82-year old woman bestows me with such optimism. I get ashamed at my sometimes sullen disposition, my unresolved grudges and trifling annoyances, because Hermie, who wiped people’s asses for thirty years, still loves the world, still lives her life to the fullest at the age of eighty-two. I am eager to go home and eat my Leche Flan and think of ways that I might conquer the world.
The last time I saw her was late January of this forsaken year. I went to her apartment and ran an errand for her. She knew I love her homemade pansit so she cooked some for lunch, and of course, she wrapped all the leftovers for me to take home. She opened her fridge and looked at what else she could put in my “to-go” bag. I told her the pansit was more than enough, that she should not trouble herself anymore, but she would not listen to me. So my to-go bag also contained cheese, butter, chicken nuggets, and bread. Butter!! Out of respect and gratitude, I accepted all that she gave me and put them inside my bag. I was quite relieved that she did not empty her fridge otherwise she would have also given me all her frozen food.
I am writing about her because lately I have been thinking about kindness, and that is one of her wonderful attributes. Kindness is the one thing that lifts our spirits regardless of who gives or receives it. Sometimes it takes so little to be kind. Sometimes you don’t know the difference you’ve made in a person’s life because of one small kind gesture or word.
Tonight, Hermie, I honor you and I thank you for your papery hands always reaching out to mine and for the warmth in your voice whenever you call and say, “I haven’t seen you in a month! When are we gonna see each other? And what do you want to eat this time?”
Gardening has taken up my life. My small stretch of greenery is the patio outside my bedroom on the second floor of a quaint apartment building. I have tomatoes, herbs, succulents, flowers, orchids. I have recently discovered that I planted a flower that blooms during the day and closes at night. This flower catches you at your lowest point and whispers, Sit awhile, calm your mind, delight in the miracle of the seed that you planted a year ago. This flower will not allow you to brood or be restless. This flower mends your heart and wants you to truly live. I once wrote these words in my notebook: I want to leave the dark, I want to see what you find beautiful. Whatever took me into the spectacle of light has led me to what is indeed beautiful.
I sit on a bamboo bench on the patio. Shafts of light fall on one corner, then on to the next, as the day progresses from morning to afternoon, and then the magic continues in the evening under a brilliant sky when the moonbeams fall on the rooftops. Here, not only have I planted seeds, but I also sat in quiet waiting for them to grow, waiting patiently and then impatiently. On this patio I learn a thing or two about stillness and hope and nature’s stubborn desire to live. I learn about mindfulness and patience and not giving up.
In these trying times, we could use all the help we could get. If you are fortunate enough to be able to help others, please do so. Below is a list of resources especially for artists.
Life takes you to the sea after a rainy Christmas day. You sit on a bench, tired but happy, a spectator to life’s beauty and madness, where you leave the world alone to do what it does. The sky flaunts its magnificence and then it fades to other meanings. A young family tests the water, a child laughs a soulful laugh. This day you feel much older than you are, more reflective, more given to bouts of elation and beautiful sadness. You think, sometimes life is this way, moments of quiet wonder replaced by some chaos in your head, or in your heart, and back again to being in the moment, to a flock of birds gliding across the sky, to that child running towards a future that you hope is kind and nurturing. Then you sit a while on the bench with the one you love, sharing a sandwich, and you are glad that there is comfort in ordinary things that don’t require you to be brave or beautiful. And then you go home, wherever that is, a quiet shade where your soul can breathe, a nondescript room that makes time stop, to a place that loves you back. And you linger there for a long time, twilight glides across the city, and your last thoughts are about gratitude and beginnings and life’s great continuous unfolding.