“We never know the quality of someone else’s life, though we seldom resist the temptation to assume and pass judgement.” ~ Tami Hoag, from Dark Horse

Henri Matisse, “Open Door, Brittany” (1896, oil on board)

“Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” ~ Paulo Coelho, from The Alchemist

Saturday afternoon, partly cloudy, 45 degrees.

Corey has gotten a ride into Coeburn to pick up the second round of shots for the puppies. The rescue coordinator managed to get someone to donate the shots, not sure who, but it’s a definite boon. The pups are a bit overdue for this round. Here’s hoping that the woman who was on tap to foster them will be willing to take them soon once they’ve gone through this round of vaccinations.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Interior with Doorway” (1962, oil on canvas)

Lately, when I make it into the living room in the morning, I really want to turn around and go back to bed and hide beneath the covers. The living room can best be described as a disaster area. Let me back up: When we moved, we bought an oversized bean bag chair at Sam’s that could be opened into a full-sized mattress. We slept on this  during the moving process. Recently, we decided to let the dogs sleep on it temporarily, mostly for Tillie’s arthritis. Since the arrival of the pups and goats, the bean bag has been appropriated at various times and is in a state of complete breakdown. Someone or the other made a hole in the middle of the cover, and it has become a game to pull out the pieces of memory foam with which it has been stuffed.

The living room floor is covered in pieces of memory foam, and as soon as I sweep, more pieces appear. It’s our own version of a ball pit, albeit one composed of memory foam. Why do I let the puppies do this,  you may wonder. I’m swimming against a tide composed of 17 rapidly growing puppies and two goat kids. What would you do? How would you go about handling all of this . . . this . . . what this is?

I know. You wouldn’t be in this situation, would you? You would have had the females spayed last year. Or you wouldn’t have taken on more dogs when Dallas died. Or you would have taken the puppies to any available shelter and been done with it. Or you would have put all of the animals in the big barn that doesn’t exist. Or you would have gathered all of your family and friends and held a big ol’ barn raising. Or you never would have moved onto a farm without the proper equipment, or structures, or working capital. Or………….

“but we can’t know what suffering will cost us.
It could cost the very self that longed for it,
that winked at its specter, lurking,
blueing the sky. In the wake of its coming,
the small boat of our souls—” ~ Eliza Griswold, from “In Another Year of Fewer Disappointments”

Sunday afternoon, overcast, 49 degrees.

So just as I began to fall into the familiar rhythm of writing, the laptop decided to throw the old problems at me: repeated scripts and constant screen blackouts. It was all too much, and so I abandoned the post in the hopes that I would be able to finish today. It’s odd, really, how one day this laptop will work just fine, and then the next, nothing works, or works consistently. Today seems to be a better day; you could almost believe that this machine has moods.

Almost.

Marcus Stone, “Doorway” (nd, oil on canvas)

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, your smooth judgment of our ragged current state of affairs. Granted, I’m assuming that you are judging, and maybe you aren’t, but if the tables were turned, I would probably judge. That’s the kind of person that I am, or rather, used to be. I’ve become much kinder in the ways in which I view people and their circumstances. I suppose that it’s one of the benefits of being on the far side of youth: experience has in fact taught me not to be so swift in my condemnation of others, has taught me the pitfalls of doing so, among many other life lessons that youth in general can never begin to understand.

The fact is that I probably judge myself much more harshly than anyone else ever could. My critical eye is most keen when turned inward. Funny, I just remembered something that my first serious boyfriend said to me, quite without malice—that I should be a critic when I grew up because I was always criticizing everyone and everything. I was maybe 15 at the time. I wonder how I had already become so damned cynical at such a young age, but truthfully, I don’t have to wonder much. My mother was one of the most judgmental people that I have ever encountered. Hands down.

My Aunt Betty, my mom’s best friend for years, once used the word deluge to describe a heavy rain that had been going on for days, and I remember my mom being so put out about the word, going on and on about how Betty used these strange words. But I also remember that at the time I thought that it was such a cool-sounding word, and I immediately looked it up in the dictionary (you know, those books we used pre-Google). So weird when those little blips of memory arrive unbidden.

But I digress . . .

“All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life —where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” ~ Miranda July, from It Chooses You

Back to my assessment of my critical eye and my mother: She was always most critical of those closest to her—me, my dad, her family, her friends. I’m not sure if any of us ever measured up, so I’m not surprised that I too grew up to be hyper critical, but for the most part, I have reserved that criticism for those outside of my inner circle, so I was truly surprised when that boyfriend made that comment. I denied it and laughed it off, but alone with my thoughts, I mulled it over. Was I that critical? And for that matter, how does one go about being paid to criticize?

John Singer Sargent, “Venetian Doorway” (c1902, watercolor on paper)

So as regards the current situation in which we no find ourselves—anything that you could say or think, I have already said and thought. Like it or not, having three bitches become impregnated is irresponsible, regardless of the reasons that led to such a turn of events. Corey and I never quite seem to be able to make it to this side of being responsible adults, at least not when it comes to finances. Try as we might, we never seem to get it right, so we keep finding ourselves in these impossible situations.

How does that happen exactly? Seriously. How?

We genuinely try and try and try. We have no extravagances in our lives now, never go to bars or movies, never buy clothes, rarely buy books, never go out to eat. His biggest personal expense is cigarettes, and mine is makeup/skincare, but even those things have been pared back to the barest of bones. We do have internet, and we do have a television subscription service (a cable alternative), but being able to at least watch a few key shows is frankly one of the only things keeping me sane.

“Sometimes you imagine that everything could have been different for you, that if only you had gone right one day when you chose to go left, you would be living a life you could never have anticipated. But at other times you think there was no other way forward–that you were always bound to end up exactly where you have.” ~ Kevin Brockmeier, from The View from the Seventh Layer

I have no answers to any of this. Right now, my biggest concern is transferring these puppies to the rescue people and then doing a major deep clean of the house. Exciting, right?

And in the meantime, I keep questioning my life choices and wondering how and why it seems that an emotional bomb exploded and destroyed any normalcy I once had in my life. I continue to wonder how best to fix everything that is wrong while simultaneously wondering if any of this is in fact fixable. Look, I know that few people actually have lives that are as seamless as they might appear. Behind the safety of doors firmly fixing outside factors and circumstances externally, what happens inside, physically or mentally, can never truly be known by others.

So this brings me back to my original query: What would you do? What would anyone do? How do people with seemingly smooth-sailing lives handle it when it all goes to hell? Drugs? Alcohol? Emotional addictions? I’m not being facetious. Truly. When Corey makes my morning cup of coffee, I ask him to add opium. Am I joking? Yes. No. Probably.

Panaylotis Tetsis, “French Door” (1961)

Let me back up. I don’t have a drug problem. In fact, it would be damned hard for me to do so, first because of the money such a thing would take, and second, and more importantly, because I hate relinquishing control, to anyone or anything, which is why I’ve never even tried anything more than pot and speed (way back in the day). But it feels good to make such facetious comments because it lets me know that I haven’t completely lost myself, haven’t lost the sardonic side, haven’t lost the small ability to make feeble jokes in the face of mountains of ca ca.

And so I continue to slog through it as best I can, and while that may not seem the best way to handle things, especially to someone just looking in, it’s the only way I can, the only way I know how. And that means that at this precise moment, there is a passel of puppies sleeping in a scrum on the bean bag behind me. Small pieces of memory foam cover at least half the surface of the living room floor. Corey is in the kitchen with the two goats and the rest of the puppies trying to put together soup for our dinner, and my most recent to-do list was probably shredded by the goats when I wasn’t looking.

Ask me next week how things are, and I probably won’t be able to cite any major changes or improvements in our current circumstances. But at least we’ll be here, on the ridge, in the midst of over 100 acres of rambling land just ripe with possibilities. And perhaps that’s the most important word of all: possibilities.

There are still possibilities. And so I go on.

More later. Peace.


Music by Onuka, “Time”


Sometimes, When the Light

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

~ Lisel Mueller

 

A Quick Update . . .

Wednesday afternoon, sunny, 42 degrees.

Oh my. Far too much to include in a quick update, so I’ll just hit the highlights: major ongoing computer problems causing me to reboot several times a day and making it pretty near impossible to write anything more than a few sentences (and I had several posts planned to begin the new year), major vertigo episode causing me to be unable to do much of anything several times a day……..

I’m uncertain if the vertigo was exacerbated by the Aimovig shot that I had last Friday, but the two things seem to be going hand in hand. I’ve never had vertigo that went on for days, and it’s maddening as I can’t do anything, especially anything that requires me to bend over. The medication that I take for vertigo (Meclizine) makes me very sleepy, so I’m unwilling to take it during the day. As a compromise, I’ve been taking half a pill, which really doesn’t do much to alleviate the feelings that I’m going to fall on my face at any second.

Anyway, that’s a very quick synopsis of my life this past week. I’m hoping that something changes soon, anything, actually.

“She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.” ~ Alex Tizon, from “My Family’s Slave”

Lola Pulido with the author and his siblings (all images are Tizon family photos)

“Push away the past, that vessel in which all emotions curdle to regret.” ~ Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, from Before We Visit the Goddess

Thursday late afternoon, cloudy and cool, 51 degrees.

I’ve had this one tab open on my laptop for about two weeks, maybe more. I haven’t wanted to close it as I wanted it to be a constant reminder that it needed attention on my part. It’s one of three posts that I’ve been trying to write longer than I care to admit. This particular tab is for an article that was published in The Atlantic called “My Family’s Slave,” by the late Alex Tizon, and although I’ve wanted to write a response to it ever since I read it, I cannot seem to find the best way in, if that makes any sense.

Lola age 51

The article deals with a Filipino tradition (for lack of a better word) of the better-off taking in someone not so well-off and offering them the opportunity to live with and work for the family. Better-off is very subjective as it means anyone with more money than you. The only catch is that working for implies receiving a salary of some sort, and these women (mostly) never receive any money. Tizon explains:

Slavery has a long history on the islands. Before the Spanish came, islanders enslaved other islanders, usually war captives, criminals, or debtors. Slaves came in different varieties, from warriors who could earn their freedom through valor to household servants who were regarded as property and could be bought and sold or traded. High-status slaves could own low-status slaves, and the low could own the lowliest. Some chose to enter servitude simply to survive: In exchange for their labor, they might be given food, shelter, and protection.

. . . Today even the poor can have utusans or katulongs (“helpers”) or kasambahays (“domestics”), as long as there are people even poorer. The pool is deep.

“If ever I lose
my memory of you, walk beside me
like a stag; like a bird heard, unseen” ~ Anne Michaels, from Correspondences

Let me offer a bit of my own background here: For three summers, starting when I was just 14, I worked for my Aunt Remy, taking care of her five kids. I arrived at 7 in the morning and left at 6 in the evening, and for this I received $50 a week, and I felt lucky to be making such good money. In addition to taking care of the kids, my cousins (a term loosely used by Filipinos to identify anyone close to the family), my daily chores included cleaning the entire house, doing laundry, and attempting to cook. I never saw this as being too much work; after all, they had an in-ground pool and I could spend a few hours every day hanging out in the crystal blue water. I viewed the entire transaction was quite equitable.

Lola passport photo

These were my “rich relatives,” as I always referred to them. I loved my aunt and uncle like a second set of parents, for good reason. My uncle lived with my parents before he got married, and he was one of my frequent babysitters. My aunt lived with my parents when she came over from the Philippines before she married my uncle. They were always a big part of my life, and their deaths wounded my heart almost as much as those of my parents.

When my summers became too full with cheer leading practices for me to continue my full-time summer job with them, my aunt found a Filipino woman to live with the family. I never knew if she was paid, only that she lived with the family full-time. I’m embarrassed to say that I cannot remember her name. But this article immediately called her to mind.

“This memory was not painful to her now. Her life was an open window and she a butterfly.” ~ Simon Van Booy, from “French Artist Killed in Sunday’s Earthquake”

Another memory: When relatives from Newark visited one summer, they brought with them their live-in woman. My aunt asked me not to mention that I was paid because she didn’t want their live-in to feel bad. I realize now that the woman probably wasn’t paid anything. That’s just how it was done.

Lola Pulido at age 18

We never had one of these women in our house, probably because it was just my mom, dad, and me, that and we weren’t well off. However, over the years we frequently had a relative of some sort living with us. Again, that’s just how it is, and it never seemed odd to me. I think that if my parents had wanted a live-in that there were certainly many relatives in the Philippines who would have jumped at the chance, life in the States being much preferred to a life of poverty in the islands.

That being said, I don’t think that my American mother would have ever been comfortable with such an arrangement, not because she was opposed to have help, but more because she was such a very jealous woman and having another woman living in our house would have stirred her monster, which was always seething just below the surface of her marriage to my dad.  Truthfully, though, my father gave her good reason to be suspicious. I can admit that now without feeling that I’m betraying either of them.

“Stare at the monster: remark
How difficult it is to define just what
Amounts to monstrosity in that
Very ordinary appearance.” ~ Ted Hughes, from “Famous Poet”

What has made it so hard for me to write about all of this is that my aunt and uncle were good, generous people, and I wouldn’t want it to seem that I’m criticizing them in any way, but if I am to be honest, then I have to admit that the tradition that they carried on was very much like the slavery the article’s author discusses. It is hard, painful even, to try to think of my relatives in these terms.

Slavery is a hard word—it is filled with negative connotations, rightfully so, and when most American heard the word, they think about that shameful period in our country’s history in which the color of one’s skin dictated how the individual lived, whether or not the person was paid or could vote or even if that individual could have the barest education. Tizon’s article recounts another form of slavery, one that most white Americans know nothing about, but one that most Filipino Americans know about but rarely acknowledge.

Lieutenant Tomhow

But back to the article: Tizon narrates how Lola (an all-encompassing Tagalog word for grandmother or nana), lived with his family after his mother died, and after Lola’s death how he took her ashes back to her family in the Philippines. It’s a bittersweet story, told in retrospect through a child’s eyes and then later through the wisdom that being an adult sometimes imparts, too late more often than not.

Tizon recounts the story of how his maternal grandfather, Lieutenant Tom, a “cigar-chomping army lieutenant named Tomas Asuncion” brought an 18-year-old Filipina girl named Eudocia Tomas Pulido into the family in 1943 to take care of his mother whose own mother had died in childbirth. Pulida, or Lola—a cousin from a marginal side of the family, rice farmers—was a gift to Tizon’s mother, and Lola stayed with various members of Tizon’s family for almost 68 years, 56 or them as an utusan (people who take commands).

Lieutenant Tom had as many as three families of utusans living on his property in the Tarlac province of the Philippines. He had lots of land but little money, and he was shrewd. As Tizon explains how Lola came to be the family’s slave, “The lieutenant was shrewd—he saw that this girl was penniless, unschooled, and likely to be malleable . . . She could have food and shelter if she would commit to taking care of his daughter . . . Lola agreed, not grasping that the deal was for life.”

“Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” ~ Evelyn Waugh, from Brideshead Revisited

Another memory: My parents and I spent several months in the Philippines after my dad retired from the Navy. The plan was for us to live there, but that didn’t work out as I became ill and found to be allergic to pretty  much everything. But while we were staying at my grandmother’s house in my dad’s village of Gapan, we would visit my great aunt Tiba’s house. I recall that she had an utusan, but that’s all I remember. Later, when we moved to Quezon City, two of my cousins moved with us. They helped out, but I honestly don’t know if they were there as utusans or as family, or even if there is a difference.

We were Americanized. We weren’t rich, but as compared to many in my father’s family, we were well off. We stayed in an air-conditioned apartment in Quezon City at a time in which air conditioning was a luxury. It may still be a luxury—I have no idea. So the opportunity to live in the city with us as opposed to a small village must have seemed appealing.

Lola age 82

My mother, born into a large family during the Great Depression, never had servants, so I don’t think that she would have been able to order people about naturally; at least, that is how I like to remember things. My father made it out of his small village by becoming a Guerilla during WWII and then later enlisting in the U.S. Navy; he was never entitled but he believed ardently in helping out family whenever he could.

If it sounds as if I’m trying to convince myself that for those few short months we did not have a family slave, I am, but I’m also trying to be realistic, reconciling the parents I knew with the parents I couldn’t have possibly known well as a child. What we know of our parents is what we choose to know, and few of us choose to know or to remember that side in which our parents were human beings, with their own likes and dislikes, wants and desires, shortfalls and foibles.

That’s just not how it works. Is it?

Utusan. Helper. Servitude. Long hours. No pay. No personal life beyond the family’s environs. Bottom line: slave. It’s ugly no matter how memory shapes it. If you get a chance, I do recommend reading the article that jump started this post. It is a lovely narrative, one to which few white Americans can actually relate but deserves a wide audience nevertheless.

More later. Peace.


Music by Billie Marten, “Bird”