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Fragments of Far Away

There is a notion among believers in an afterlife that the departed can somehow “watch” the people they leave behind. 

For a culture as religious and family-oriented as the Pinoy, with a mentality that scavenges for bliss in a heap of difficult circumstances, the concept of a heavenly destination is ever-important and always on our mind.

There is a notion among believers in an afterlife that the departed can somehow “watch” the people they leave behind.  This fishbowl scenario is comforting, insofar as we think of it as a loved one checking on their relatives, remaining invested in their intimate legacy.

But critically reflecting on the idea of after-death observation suggests something less pleasant.  Imagining myself in this situation, I feel trapped in a ghostly theatre, cursed to watch my own abandoned documentary as it plays on without me.  It must be quiet torture, longing to speak to those behind the glass, seeing loved ones suffer my loss, watching them hurt because of me, yet feeling further paralyzed with each frantic attempt to interact. 

I would witness, through a barrier that is millimeters in thickness but light-years in depth, my family’s darkest moments, their guiltiest evenings, their best-hidden secrets.  Frankly, a waiting room removed from these images seems more appealing than a telescope of unrequited yearning.

I lost my Lolo earlier this year, and his death was not just emotionally wounding; it was philosophically distressing for me. He was not just a man who was poetic to memorialize, like some dramatic symbol that is easy to exploit in literature.  No, Lolo and I were extremely close, and his rugged self-sacrifice and stubborn generosity were more than realities to be interpreted; they were affectionately given and plainly communicated by my ever-present hero.  That is why it disturbs me to know, deep inside, that for him, no heaven would be heaven without us in it.

So I wonder now what it means to be isolated on both ends of existence. If a Filipino-American constructs their personal heaven from fond memories, then is it essentially a patchwork of street vendors and football stadiums, jeepneys melting into Muni buses, sinigang fused with clam chowder? 

And would my heaven-space, in turn, be stitched at its borders with my neighbor’s distinct paradise?  Also, if my tita’s greatest enjoyment came from cocktails, cigarettes and slot machines, would these be the sacred relics that furnish her Elysian Fields, or would the person she truly was be suppressed or rewritten to fit some standard of holiness? I don’t know what would make it all real, more than just the out-of-body simulation of a divine programmer.

A day-to-day existence that is woven from happy sense data runs the risk of becoming a stagnant pool of nostalgia if there is no longer any need for the driving forces of human achievement–hope, progress, competition or motivation.  And coupled with moral rigidity, it’s a classic recipe for dystopia.  But my conclusion from all of this is not simply bleak and nihilistic.  I’ve come to realize that my longing for immortality is tightly bound to my love for the people who give my life meaning.  The bottom line is simple: to be stuck in any realm without the people I love is an agonizing condition.

Of course, the only thing I know for sure is what it feels like to be abandoned on our side of the wall.  For an immigrant family, it is especially easy to find a metaphor for being “left behind” because we already spend our lives as forgotten slippers on unfamiliar turf.  We’re used to being genetic material strewn from our island of origin, ube yams that washed up on a shore lined with vineyards. 

For much of my life, for example, I saw our color complex as some sort of lingering colonial brain damage or a weapon of class warfare. 

Pinoys already know what it’s like to be a piece of elsewhere, to ache for reintegration, until the day we realize that we’ve become polished shards that don’t set perfectly in either world.  The Rapture, for us, was experienced the moment the world as we knew it vanished when we disembarked, eyes squinted, from the cramped cabin of a plane or ship.

It is a fundamental part of our human experience to be a lost remnant of some distant whole.  In a sense, we as a people are all orphans.  Through the experience of loss, we survive as our roots are buried, and as immigrants, we prosper despite being excised from our original stalk.

In a crossroads like America, however, we begin to realize that when our narrow stream meets an ocean of diverse people, it is a different sort of reconvergence.  For much of my life, for example, I saw our color complex as some sort of lingering colonial brain damage or a weapon of class warfare.  But perhaps the perceived attractiveness born from mestizaje is not just an exercise in self-hatred, but rather evolution’s way of hinting to us that racial lines are meant to be crossed, that regional phenotypes will inevitably blur into a general hue of brown.  The diaspora, from this perspective, might be a quest to disperse from our familiar tribes and essentially “reboard the ark” as a species.

Other ethnicities, of course, are just our cousins from much farther back.  And this truth about our common ancestry points to the most overtly spiritual concept that can be gleaned from the observable universe–that all of us, without exception, drifted from the same place of origin.  It is humbling and overwhelming to know that we’re all cooked from the same strands of stardust.
Because of this, I love to stare at the night sky, the same firmament that bathes my motherland in orange at that same moment, and think about how small we are in the scope of the cosmos.  The oneness of nature, our ontological commonality, makes our local differences even more poignant.  We are the great plurality born from singularity.

At times when I’m a wallflower at my own party and I feel alien in every way, even in this heterogeneous society, it is strangely soothing to think that I was somehow pick-axed from a remote quarry.  It reminds me that we as people are as justifiably distinct as we are similar. 

If we can all trace our genesis to a supernova, a long-forgotten womb, then my moments of isolation and my occasional inability to relate and belong are a necessary struggle on the path to metaphysical maturity.  The truth is that we are all vagabonds in the same mass exile, all foreigners in the same wayward vessel.  And being so far from my physical, cultural and spiritual birthplace inspires me to reach across socially-constructed barriers to form meaningful relationships with my fellow travelers.

What I have learned as a grandson left behind, as an immigrant displaced, and as a trove of atoms spewed from a mother star is that to be broken is to be human, and my burning desire to reunite or reincorporate is a crucial part of finding out who I am.  As a person who came of age within this decade, I was recently daunted by the coldness of physics and the irrevocability of death.  I was also pained by the knowledge that a hundred balikbayan homecomings could not undo my transformation into a hybrid creature caught in between families. 

Finding myself, and consequently growing up, involved the realization that rejoining my birthplaces was not a literal process, but instead an emotional ripening through intellectual hurdles.  As adults, we move away from our parents to pursue life, but they never really leave us.  And so it is with our homeland, our youth, our idealism, our alma mater, and our primordial ancestry.

I’ve realized that memories compiled from Earth must be the blueprint of our heaven.  Without them, what is the music in the mind of the man deaf since birth...

Coming to terms with “leaving” was an important step for me before I could hope to come to terms with being left behind.  The former is the inner struggle of a teenager in college, and the latter is the slurred lament of a man with innocence lost.  Pining for a reunion with someone who departed forever is simply not like the feverish homesickness or delirious stargazing of my adolescence.  It is not such sweet poetry, the stuff of dense verbiage and light melodrama.  Being left behind on this side of existence hurts in a raw, visceral way that renders my metaphors trite.

To be at peace, I’ve needed to leave behind the neurotic over-thinker of my past and at least partially revise my skeptical view of heaven.  I’ve had to stop being the purveyor of pessimism around people whose bliss I envy.  I’ve had to make sure I was not the nephew that titas would frown at as I stood in a quicksand pit of rationality.  Finding a foothold outside of the shade of fatalism involved ever-so-slowly reigniting my appreciation for the beauty of wonderment, the exhilaration that comes from probability, and the notion that if this is all there is–it’s fine– but maybe, just maybe, there’s more.

I’ve realized that memories compiled from Earth must be the blueprint of our heaven.  Without them, what is the music in the mind of the man deaf since birth, and what are the colors imagined by a woman who entered the world blind?  The days we spend here, in this circus of sentimentality and strife, buying produce at palengke or Safeway, listening to Gary Valenciano or Lady Antebellum–these are the intangible units of detail that make up our conscious selves.

And the ones that really make it all matter, that make it more than just a sappy rerun of vintage pastimes, are the people we love–the flawed, unpredictable but irreplaceable company that pulls people like me out of our solipsistic prisons.  For me at least, being spoiled with time with Lolo, with my friends and family, was heaven in itself. 

I still look at the great beyond so hesitantly, like a child wishing with all his heart that his favorite fiction was real.  But I profoundly respect it, and despite my disenchantment with blind acceptance, I admit that I still seek it.  And because of this, one could argue that faith wrangled through doubt and discourse is a peculiarly strong type of faith.

At the end of the day, I’m glad to be left behind on this chaotic rock, because the impermanence of my time here has sealed its beauty for me, and as a living fragment of far away places, I am beginning to see how my brokenness has actually been wholeness, because knowing Lolo, knowing the assortment of faces that lined my multicultural neighborhood, has made me who I am.  And his effect on me, and theirs too, is something that can’t be stolen or cut away.  The sorrow felt in loss is proof that a person really meant something; it is evidence that my joy lingers.  And what, then, is heaven if not my lingering joy?

© James Constantino Bautista

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