It feels like it’s been standing there forever, watching over the world.

There’s this tree on top of a hill beside a road in a small town, and I miss it.

I was there only once, with a bunch of friends, but at odd moments during that windy, cloudy afternoon of laughing and picnicking and mad scrambling to get up on the branches, I sometimes felt like the tree and I were alone.

It reminded me of a place where I was happy as a child. Another hilltop, another small town, with friends I haven’t seen in a while, and one I never will again. But it wasn’t just nostalgia that drew me to that place. It was the tree itself.

It was beautiful. Standing on the horizon, it kept its solitary vigil over the hill and the road and the village, and the sea beyond it, keeping steady through the wind and rain and burning sun.  The world changed from dark to light and cold to warmth, yet still it stood. Constant, immovable, strong.

I want to be like that. I want to be steadfast and strong and constant, reaching higher while growing deeper as well. Sometimes, I feel like I’m too much at the mercy of the seasons, too small and fragile to do anything during the storms other than hide and hope I’m still here when it’s over. Too afraid. That’s not how  I want to live. That’s not how I’m meant to live.

It’s been windy and cloudy this past couple of days, and my thoughts are on that hilltop. I miss that tree.

I wonder if trees miss people, too.


Daring to desire

I’m back in Dumaguete, back on the path that I took a detour from when I went to Cuyo. When I re-enrolled in the university, one of the teachers that I trusted enough  to talk to about my bipolar disorder kept reminding me to go slow, to not take on more than I can handle. Sensible advice, I know. I understand myself and this disease well enough by now to realize that what’s easy and effortless in the hypomanic stage can become insurmountable when the depression hits, as it inevitably will, eventually.

But I can sense restlessness building inside me, an impatient tension. There is so much more that I want to do, so many things that I want to be other than a student struggling for a diploma. I want to backpack around my country, and to work abroad as a humanitarian volunteer. I want to dance again. I want to listen to the stories in my head and put them on paper. I want to go kite surfing. I want to take pictures. I want to learn bird watching and use it to raise environmental awareness. I want to plant a garden. I want to return to Cuyo and build a life there. I want.

Instead, here I am, having to take it slow.

But somewhere in this frustration is a glowing center of delight in all these desires. It feels wonderful to want something again, to have dreams that go beyond next week or next month. Before my get-away to Cuyo, all I could see were the goals I had failed to reach, the disappointments, the defeats. Exhausted and disillusioned, I could barely find the courage necessary for hope. Just getting by took all the energy I had.

Now, I have all these exquisite longings inside me, bold and insistent, pulling me toward tomorrow, daring me to do more than exist. And I’m clinging to them with both hands, clinging fast to hope and desire, because with my courage and faith restored, anything is possible. Right now, I may be taking it slow, but I’ll get there. Eventually, I’ll get there, because I dare.

Island time

An old man sets his traps among the mangroves, praying for a good catch. It is an ancient craft, the weaving of baskets, the luring of crabs with expertly baited traps. He does this in a siran, a salt bed, unused and flooded with sea water during the rainy season.  During the summer, the siran is a busy place, bustling with people making salt the same way their parents and grandparents did before them. Today, it is quiet, serene, with nothing to scare away the myriads of crustaceans that make their home in the mud among the roots of the bakhaw. The old man is hopeful.

Such is the rhythm of life in the siran: in the summer, they make salt, in the monsoon, they harvest the abundant marine bounty flourishing in the shallow waters. Year after year, season after season, the sea, land, and sky support and nourish life in a finely tuned cadence that the islanders have learned how to dance, generation after generation.

In the cities, skyscrapers are being built higher than ever, information is transmitted at lightning speed, and whatever natural rhythms are being played are drowned out by blaring noise and bright lights. It is exciting for some, I suppose. Certainly convenient, and these days convenience is the holy grail. You pick up a cup of coffee from a convenient drive-through window, check traffic reports from your car for the most convenient route to work, and off you go to the office, where you offer a product or service that you promote as the most convenient in the market. The city does have its own rhythm, and it’s fast and ever-changing. There’s a wild adrenalin rush to be found in keeping pace.

But I find it soothing here. I love the sense of continuity, the feeling that some things do stay the same. Yes, Cuyo is gradually moving forward into the 21st century, and that’s also a good thing. There is, after all, nothing romantic about stagnation. But for the most part, the years turn more slowly on this island than anywhere else.

There’s comfort in that. Heaven knows there’s enough instability in my own life, with bipolar disorder drastically changing my world from vivid to gray several times a year. I wake up from my depressive slumber to find myself left behind, scrambling to catch up with people and things that have moved on without me. It’s disorienting, and more than a little lonely.

So while I’m here, I’m soaking up the rhythm of the island, letting it permeate my skin and settle into the center of my body. When I leave, when I have to keep pace with a more frenetic beat, I can pause for a while and remember that somewhere else, in my somewhere else, the world is moving to the slow and steady beat of a peaceful heart.

Wildflower chains and the things people forget

Some things you forget. Like how to make a chain of wildflowers, how to twist and tie the stems so that you don’t break them or crush the petals, until you have a long enough string of blooms to loop into a necklace or a crown.

FOUND: yellow and white pieces my of childhood

You can always go back and learn it again. Remembering how much fun it used to be, you gather flowers on a handkerchief, already relishing the childlike, uncomplicated pleasure of the task. You try to be careful, but it’s trickier than you expected, and the stems keep breaking in your hands. But so what? There’s a whole field of wildflowers around you, and there are hundreds to spare.  You lose nothing by letting yourself fail until you get it right.

These poor things had to bear my clumsiness.

Sometimes, though, you forget bigger stuff, things that are more complex and so much more important. Things like how to let yourself be loved.

It takes a different kind of courage, you see, than simply loving someone. Accepting love comes with the risk of relying on someone else’s heart, someone else’s understanding of who you are and what you’re worth. They might be mistaken, or  they might change their minds, but if you’re brave  you’ll believe them anyway and let them love you. You’ll let them love you on the good days, when you know how to love them back. And you’ll even let them love you on the bad days, when you feel unworthy or empty or self-destructive, because you trust that it won’t scare them away.

It used to be so effortless for you before, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget something even as essential as that. All it takes is one too many mistakes, one too many times when you realize that vulnerability isn’t safe. Heartbreak happens, and you learn the devastating lessons of fear, which crowd out everything you knew about being brave. Self-protection is an easy habit to fall into, and a difficult one to break.

I wonder how you can go about relearning courage. There are no hearts to spare, no infinite number of breaks that you can endure without consequence. Too much that is fragile and precious is at stake. So how can you do it, then? How can you learn how to let yourself be loved all over again?

I think I might be slowly starting to get this right.

Happiness is a little boy sleeping in the garden

I don’t exactly know why, but it’s easier to write about pain. When the depression hits, it’s when writing helps the most, and it’s when I reach for the pen or the keyboard. Sometimes it gets posted; most times it remains private. But it does get written.

Joy is more elusive, both in life and in writing. There are precious few words that can capture laughter, or the feeling you get when the wind is blowing in your hair and you feel like you can fly.

But today, I had a good day. There isn’t anything world-changing about that, and in the light of the recent disasters in the news, it actually sounds frivolous and self-indulgent. But sometimes when tragedy dominates the horizon, redemption can be found in the little moments. And I had one of those moments today.

For the past week, I’ve been home with my family in the town where I grew up. I left Dumaguete for the summer, both to lick my wounds from a recent episode of depression and to gather strength and figure out my next step. It’s not something I usually do, wanting to prove that I can make it on my own. But this time, I knew I was right to come.

My mother loves to garden, and this summer the yard is in a riot of colors. So this afternoon, I took my 3-year-old cousin out to play in the sunshine. There was an unbelievable number of butterflies, and we walked around peering under leaves to look for caterpillars and cocoons. It was windy, and the breeze made a cotillion out of the bobbing pink and yellow flowers, with the flitting butterflies as their graceful partners. A fat orange kitten ran around excitedly chasing them.

And I was content. I refused to think about how fleeting the moment was, and how nothing in my future was figured out, and tried to go back to my childhood when a lifetime’s worth of daydreams could fit in a single afternoon. For now, all that mattered was the curious, happy, deeply beloved boy playing in the sun, the vivid loveliness of the day, and nothing else. We set up a folding bed in the shade, and with his precious, little-boy weight pressing against me, I allowed the hypnotic movement of the butterflies and the cheerful chatter of the birds in the siresas tree to lull us both to sleep.

When I woke up, the sight of the sleeping child beside me, smelling of sunshine and chocolate, felt like something indescribably profound…and healing. I thought, I want to remember this. So I tiptoed inside to get the digital camera, and took a few photos. Sometimes happiness comes with fireworks and fanfare, but at other times it’s as quiet as an afternoon nap in the garden with someone you love. Either way, it deserves to be celebrated.

Leftover hurt

This morning, I saw Facebook pictures of this girl on a night out with my friends.  I was surprised to find myself tearing up, surprised that even now, the sight of her with them still felt like a punch to the gut. She and I had a history, if having someone you loved and trusted go behind your back and turn all your friends against you can be called a history. It left me completely isolated and unable to trust anyone when I desperately needed a support system to deal with bipolar disorder.

But that was more than a year ago. I had already forgiven her, even without her asking. I had forgiven the people who, for months, had listened to her talking against me without telling me anything. I even started spending time with them again, getting back some of the closeness that had been lost. Some friendships never completely recovered, but a few precious ones became stronger than before.

So why did it still hurt?

I searched myself for any desire for revenge, a longing perhaps to see her as isolated as I had been. It honestly wasn’t there. In a twisted way, I understood that what she did was justified to her, and that she had suffered as well. It was never her betrayal that did the most damage anyway, it was the passive response to it of people whom I trusted to have my back. But even those relationships have been slowly repaired.

Gradually, it dawned on me why the wound never completely healed. It was never acknowledged. After the debacle, I withdrew from everybody involved to struggle with my depression on my own. Some made efforts to reach out, but I felt too wary and vulnerable, too exhausted and battered, to respond. It was a long while before I got back in touch, and by that time everyone, including myself, just wanted things to be normal. The incident was glossed over, forgotten, never spoken of again. I could only really talk about it to one person, but to everyone else, it might as well never have happened.

I thought all I needed to do so that I could move on was to forgive. But there’s still some leftover hurt beneath the surface, an aching need for someone to say, “Yes, this happened. It was traumatic, and it hurt you — you’re allowed to be hurt. I’m hurting for you, too.” With life going on as usual, it seemed like the pain didn’t matter, that it wasn’t of any consequence to anyone, even to myself. I buried it under my desire to go back to the way things were, but this morning it reminded me that I still didn’t have closure. It reminded me that forgiveness is one thing, but healing takes not only time, but an acknowledgement that the wound is real in the first place.

Goodbye 2010; hello 2011

To paraphrase Mary Anne Radmacher, courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is that little voice at the end of the year that says I’ll try again this year. My 2010 was definitely the most painful, emotionally wrenching time of my life. The struggle with bipolar disorder has never been so tough, and I’ve had to deal with heartbreaking failures in personal relationships. A lot of times I’ve even given up on trying to be happy and settled for just feeling  numb. But looking back, I can see that the love in my life outweighs the hurt, and there is still so much to be thankful for. The people who stayed are more important than those who left, and if they haven’t given up on me yet, then maybe, just maybe, I may be strong enough to give it another shot.

So I guess I’ll try again this year. 🙂