1 Jan No Comments Geejay Essays, Issue 44

by Cynthia Buiza

There is a semblance of a fool’s errand in going home to one’s birthplace. There are consolations on this clear day when, even if I could not see forever, I could at least begin to have faith once more in small redemptions.

There are aspects of my city that have not changed and are exactly as I remember them: the mildness of the air after the rain, and later, the embrace of heat and humidity, like a cloth, wrapping, wrapping itself around me. Then there is the poverty: the want and need and never finding. The incessant, all- consuming wide-open mouth of needs never met, seldom met, always wanting. The gaping chasm between the rich and the wretchedly poor, wretched because merely maintaining one’s dignity has become a luxury. Those who are jammed inside jeepneys fanning themselves furiously. Those looking out of their air-conditioned cars musing at their fellow Bicolanos through tinted windows and polarized sunglasses.

It takes resolve to take a dying city in. Ravaged by storms and rains that unfurl over the city like a heavy white curtain half of the year, the infrastructure crumbles because any attempts at cosmetic repair are washed out by the mighty forces of the monsoon season. The rest of the year, volcanic summer heat and relentless humidity conspire to make the city the literal gates of hell.

I come home again and again because, to borrow from Thoreau, I want to understand deliberately. Why do people need to leave to see clearly? In rare moments when I find myself atop this mountain of clarity, I realize that there was ultimately no compelling reason for me to leave except the force of this confusion: why we are born where we are born and why some muster the courage to leave, borne away by the impetus to survive, making it up as they go along?

Why did I travel nearly 9,000 miles just to meet that woman who used to live here?

I returned to a city both dying and living, the city of my youth and my dreams. The shops that I used to haunt now look haunted beside new, candy-colored structures fighting for space and their own mark in this landscape.

Another woman, far less fantastical, far less dreamy, would have bridged the gap between those dreams born in her backyard 40 years ago and the crushing truth that unasked for, unconscious forces are at work to reveal to her who she truly is, far removed from who she wanted herself to be. The dream is a crown of gold on a body of clay.

Is it a desire to turn one’s life, no matter how puny, into art, because that is the only thing that matters? Was it so that I could account for myself in this crowded, impersonal universe? Thousands of miles away but closer to my mother’s womb and to our shared history, these questions are ripe to be asked. The woman who leaves cleaves herself in two. I will always be the daughter of two continents: the one that bore me and spun me into being and the one that taught me how to read out loud the writing on the wall. They are inseparable.

Therefore, just as it is natural to mourn the passing of places and loved ones, the fact is that all the places I knew, those my eyes have scanned, my hands have touched; they are all gone but they are also still there, waiting for me whenever I visit, whenever I am ready. That membrane of memory refuses to die and shrivel.