“Skipping between Timelines”

“He believed in an infinite series of times,
in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of
diverging, converging and parallel times.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”

1

DESPITE ITS MATHEMATICAL TERRORS, the curiosities of quantum mechanics have drawn me in. Since last year, I have buried myself into reading its concepts, especially its framework of space, time, and reality. According to its theories, time does not run in a straight line; instead, timelines bifurcate infinitely: all moments, the theories supposed, exist simultaneously—the past, the present, the future—and are like branched-out threads weaved together into a singular rope, which, hypothetically, makes up the whole universe.

          A god sees the universe as a finished race—its beginning, middle, and end all perceived in a single flash of a moment. All this is indeed difficult, maybe even impossible, for us to grasp since the whole idea stands contrary to what our senses perceive. But a physicist’s inspection on how atoms behave on a quantum level tells us that what we see is not exactly what it is. Well, to us nonscientists, quantum mechanics is either a food for the imagination or a trigger to a headache.

2

In the university’s dormitory bed, weary from the day’s ridge and tunnel hike, I pondered about reality and quantum mechanics and came to realize the different timelines happening in the world within my skull. Then I entered the first layers of my dream.

3

The dream: I was asked to write a piece inspired by the hike: be it a short story, a poem, an essay, or a haiku. I could remember the first stanza of the poem I wrote titled “The Test of Time is the Jest of God,” “Time is God’s measure / Of how much a rock / Can take / Before it breaks.” The poem ended with the next stanza (the first line of which eluded my memory), “[…] / So the cracks remain silent/ And, without despair, accept / God’s eyes into their darkness.” Admittedly, I imagined during the hike that if I peeked into the cracks, my eyes would, by chance, meet God’s or someone else’s.

4

And during the hike, I walked behind a girl and took fancy of her impossibly supple and shapely waist, which, in each her twists, turns, and bends, made my blood boil and undeniably inspired this haiku: “Let my fingers trace / That spine of yours that tempts me / Like a devil’s snake.” Reading the lines, one does not need to look far for an interpretation.

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Illustration by Geraldine Sy

5

In the short story titled “Limbo” (apparently envisioned as we reached the ridge’s peak), the narrator, sensing the story’s coming end, refused to continue lest he might disappear afterward. So he went back narrating in reverse, risking the story to fall into a frightening absurdity: “The summit awaits all of us. But I fear we have nothing to see there afterward. Shall we continue? Shall we continue? But I fear we have nothing to see there afterward. The summit awaits all of us.” The story went on and back.

6

Oddly enough, I conceived of an essay, titled “At the End of the Tunnel,” stating that “the end is imminent, so even if one is alive here and now, one should consider himself dead and gone already, for the future is inevitable and as irrevocable as the past…. In the journey of life, the light at the end of the tunnel is the light of the end—that is, death—and the darkness inside the tunnel was that of life.” Unlike the narrator in “Limbo,” we have been nearing the end of our stories one line at a time, and “in the end, we are all nothing but words.”

7

So that’s all I’m able to retrieve from the dream. In another timeline’s future, I may have completely written all those pieces better or perfectly. And probably some future is now reading this article, since, to quote Borges, “the future already exists now.”

8

I hope, in some future out there, I have read and written all the books I want before “getting out of the tunnel.”

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend, October 9, 2016)

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A Thousand Beers Ago

If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget;
if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate;
and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.
—Charles Bukowski

A THOUSAND BEERS AGO, I still recall, my best friend took on the question “How can you fall for someone who’s completely over you?” during a drinking session at Fruits and Foods, our favorite bar. When he said “over,” he actually meant “above,” not over as in dead and done. So again, how can you fall for someone who’s completely “above” you? He alone tried answering his inquiry to this paradox. I listened. His thoughts shot deeper into the night until he arrived at an answer: “One just needs to be Superman, so he can fly higher than where she is, and then fall for her.

I laughed at once at this drunkard’s nonsense and almost flipped the table over, but I was stunned upon realizing it must be a vague allusion to Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the Overman.

Believe me, my best friend’s a genius—a rather misguided one at that, especially with a little influence of alcohol. But he’s the unfortunate guy who suddenly falls asleep no matter how savory and sexually accommodating the chicks we are drinking with are. (His tolerance for alcohol back in those days was weaker than a girl’s—unbelievably low.) Well, that means two things: one, more beers for me, and two, I get to take all the ladies.

All are true except for the “ladies” part. Mind you, we don’t drink to get laid (such act goes against my drinking ethics). Heck, we don’t even drink for the taste (we even seek Kulafu if it’s available and the mood calls for it). In all truthfulness, we desperately drink and offer a toast for the enlightenment and salvation of mankind, and seriously so. To quote from the book Alcoholica Esoterica by Ian Lendler, “a bottle of beer contains more poetry and philosophy than any other books in the world.”

(There’s no refuting Lenders statement. Its reverberance, long-stuck and percussive in my ears, soon led me to constitute my own unwritten fundamentals in drinking. One fundamental, carrying the force of a Zen koan, is “To drink is to know, and to know is to not drink.”)

******

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Illustration by Geraldine Sy

My best friend and I drink for wild pleasure and celebration, of course, setting aside our intellectual ambitions for our hedonistic pursuits (this we try to keep in moderation). Inevitably, we drink for our dramas as well. Fact is, during life’s most tumultuous and trying times, you just want to sleep dead drunk for the night and wake up, regretfully, the next day with an even deadlier hangover.

There are times when I need a strong drink so I can write without inhibitions, but alcohol worsens my already god-awful penmanship. Reading the draft when I get sober, I can only make out, barely and with effort, the first paragraph. The rest of it resembles a drug addict’s scrawl on the walls.

Here I present to you a line I scrawled during one of my flights of intoxication: “Alcohol makes emotions inflammable, and it takes only a single question to lick both into flames.”

What lucidity only a drunk mind is capable of attaining! In vino nobis veritas, as they say (“In wine, there is truth”). A drunk mind is as mysterious as it is dangerous.

I am a bit proud of my ability to remember my drunken moments, however cringe-worthy, grotesque, and shameful my acts may be, as not everyone recalls his flights during intoxication; and even when they do, they wish to forget all of it. But not me.

******

My best friend and I have been drinking at my place for some nights now, catching up, for we haven’t seen each other for months. It has dawned on me that we are still asking the same questions regarding life. (To interject a line, “As time flies, what remains the same? The question remains the same.”) Are we still as naive as when we were in college?

If so, a thousand more beers then.

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend Cebu: July 31, 2016)

Book Nook: Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

I had to laugh like hell.
—Kurt Vonnegut

HOCUS POCUS is a grim, depressing, yet terribly funny, fictional autobiography of General Eugene Debs Hartke, a person who never masturbated and uttered neither blasphemy nor profanity in his life. His parents died in a freak accident in Niagra Falls without ever knowing what hit them. His wife and mother-in-law, carrying a powerful strain of insanity, turned into lunatics. His son and daughter, upon knowing that they too could end up in an insane asylum, couldn’t forgive them for reproducing. Gene also has a son out of wedlock, who was named after a cocktail.

Gene dreamed of being a jazz pianist or a journalist, but “life being what it was” placed him in West Point and made him lieutenant colonel during the Vietnam War, an accomplishment which made his frustrated father real proud.

That path to West Point was all thanks to the “helmsman of his destiny,” Sam Wakefield, a lieutenant colonel he met during the high school science fair, who would commit suicide years later and leave a very ambiguous and absolutely unoriginal note: “My work is done.”

As a professional soldier, Gene would have welcomed a returning Christ  with a napalm air strike, if ordered to do so by his superiors. At the end of the book, he would reveal the number of people he had killed in the war and how many women he had slept with.

When the Vietnam War was over—which was “nothing but the ammunitions business”—Gene met Sam again, who then hired him as a professor in Tarkington College, which was a correctional insititute, to teach physics and music appreciation to affluent learning-disabled students, or “seemingly hopeless cases of plutocratic juvenile incapacities,” whom no conventional universities would dare accept.

The college did rather well and proved that they could teach what the other universities thought to be unteachable: some of their graduates were successful in life and even became among the nation’s great men.

Spent in this institution were Gene’s happiest days—not as a teacher, but as a carillon player at the beginning and end of classes. He was a good teacher and was a students’ favorite, but he would soon be fired because of “life being what it was.”

Gene landed another job on a maximum-security prison as a teacher to the illiterate and dangerous convicts who were never allowed set foot with society again, and there he contracted tuberculosis. Then one night, a prison break was successful—the largest in American history—with the Tarkington College just across the frozen lake that separated them.

He was inside a prison library when he wrote his scrap autobiography. And so it goes.

Hocus-Pocus

The novel’s format is unparalleled in its unique brilliance: “The narrator wrote this book in pencil on everything from brown wrapping paper to the backs of business cards, from scrap to scrap, as though each were a bottle to fill,” hence the nonlinearity of the story line, a signature Vonnegutian device, which makes this work entropic, digressive, challenging, and anticlimactic.

The story can be summed up as an old war veteran’s retrospection of his life, like taking into account the number of the people he killed in the war and the women he slept with. This method allowed Vonnegut to go on a “freewheeling commentary,” and not without the raging moral outrage and ridicule, on war, fate, society, racism, and politics, business, and education.

The rhythm of Kurt Vonnegut’s “sharp-toothed” and stoical witticisms remains irreproachable and inimitable, and none of his literary inheritors come close to his satirical and philosophical bents.

Definitely among the 20th century’s greatest novels, Hocus Pocus stands as a depressing vision of humanity. Vonnegut states, “I am not writing this book for people below the age of 18, but I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success, since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them.”

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend Cebu: June 19, 2016)

Keeping a Diary: A Lifelong Discipline

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If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.

—Anais Nin, In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays


MY INDULGENCE on Henry Miller’s autobiographical novels has led me to Anais Nin, a free-spirited, intelligent woman whose ideas have molded and complemented with Miller’s writings. I’ve no sooner read Nin’s works than she becomes one of the few female writers I adore and venerate.

Nin, a monumental diarist and feminist in the twentieth century, writes “to taste life twice, in the moment and in introspection” and to “recreate [herself] when destroyed by living.” The lifelong and almost-daily practice of keeping a diary has built her “an inner world that can withstand destruction.”

At age 11, Nin has started the diary as a series of letters to her father who abandoned the family. She decides to become a writer. Decades later, the diary has grown into some 150 volumes. The 35,000 pages of handwritten journals are now kept as a unique, uncensored document of a woman’s “multileveled” life contending against puritanical, societal dogmatism and restraints.

Her five novels, collection of short stories, and essays on various subjects, Nin believes, are all “merely outcroppings” from her diary: what she produces outside is “a distillation, the myth, the poem.”

Here, gathered from Nin’s and Miller’s works, are a few methods of their lifelong discipline:

  1. The diary as a confessional and confidant. Begin by “eliminating the idea of the [diary] as [good writing].” Express explicitly and fearlessly. “It’s not an exercise in literature; it’s an exercise in our lives.”
  2. Automatic writing. This is devised by the surrealists to bypass consciousness. It is thought without effort and control. Write “unconsciously,” with abandon and digressiveness, as though possessed by spirits. Besides its cathartic effect, this method introduces intimacy with the cryptic workings of the mind and the “supernatural forces.”
  3. Free association and dreams (techniques in psychoanalysis). The person is given a certain word as a stimulus and is encouraged to report—quickly and without censorship—whatever image or word association that arises in his mind; this is to uncover repressed thoughts.
    When recording dreams, don’t rush to wake up; instead, with eyes still closed, remain in the twilight state (between waking and sleeping), reach inward for that last thread of dream material, and trace back the labyrinth before writing. Note down impressions of the dream. List a string of free associations stemming from the dream elements (e.g., a stab wound in the dream could be related to the fear of death or suppressed sexual arousal in real life).
  4. Various compositions. Write insights on specific subjects (e.g., relationship traumas), portraits/sketches (e.g., impressionistic reviews of places, events, and character analysis of people), letters, imagined moments, and dialogues.

Keeping a diary, as Nin said, is a necessity to everyone’s “becoming” as the daily logs put life into deliberate attention and reflection. The diary is an “instrument for living” that should be not only for writers but also for anyone from any walks of life.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: February 8, 2016)

In and Out the Labyrinth of the Mind (A Personal Note on Gestalt Therapy’s Impact)

The most tremendous voyages
are sometimes taken
without moving from the spot.
—Henry Miller, The World of Sex

THE GESTALT MARATHON is an indoor, static marathon. All its participants are sitting on the floor most of the time inside a large, conducive room, weary and confounded from the in-depth processes, emotional exercises, experimentations, and self-encounters and discoveries. Yet they are equipped with an awareness so sharp it cuts deep through the surface of their perceived experience and evokes rich and different perspectives from within—perspectives which are at least insightful, liberating, and integrative, if not directly curative.

“Awareness per se, by and in itself, can be curative. (Perls)”

In August 2009, after two days of intensive self-awareness activities, I have stepped upon this new ground where I have made contact with myself and understood “awareness” not just in its psychical nature but also in its biological, instinctive sense (as an élan vital that encompasses not just humans but all of life). “Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in us. Everything else about us is dead machinery” (Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions).

Though abstract—and sometimes abstruse, elusive, and ineffable—awareness also seemed like a state of matter, at least to me, perhaps even of a solid form. I feel my hands on it, as if I was holding a heart, consciously feeling its pulse throb from inside my head as I become aware of awareness itself.

Franz Kafka spoke of literature “as an axe with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us.” The same thing can be said of the Gestalt marathon. With all the compression and pressure already inside its participants—their lifelong suppressed issues and traumas remaining incessantly percussive through neuroses—the release is akin to an eruption of a dormant volcano that has long forgotten about its own existence but suddenly awakens from this amnesia of living.

The Gestalt marathon offered me a chance to let my deep-seated feelings burst and tear down my prison and chains, albeit not permanently. Soon I found out, through theory and experience, that there’s a rhythmic relationship (contact and withdrawal) even to things such as freedom and captivity,

Not long, I started building another prison, this time, of my own choosing: an inner world where I can give my thoughts free rein without extrinsic influences as much as possible and only led by pure and spontaneous impulses bubbling from the well that is my “soul” (perhaps soul is nothing but the fancy word for “awareness”). I believe that opposites complement one another, as in the principles of Taoism: “light and darkness.” Truth is that nature is cyclic, always inevitable and necessary. I believe that some walls are just built in order to be broken altogether soon. They are also there to make one realize that he had outgrown the walls of his being.

*******

This voyage of the mind, a plunge deep into my skull-sized ocean, lets me arrive at a fecundity of potentials that is seeking to be brought into life. It’s like slipping into a dream and waking up with a flower in my hand.

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then? (Coleridge)

Conversely (this time, the flower is from the outside), at moments of selfless subjectivity, which I soon learn from Gestalt therapy, I take note of how an external stimulus passes “through my senses and into my mind.” I observe the whole course of this awareness continuum bifurcating through the labyrinth of my mind, along with its curious loops and random turns and associations. This is why time passes inside the mind differently (in our heads lies a battleground of invisible forces).

I am aware of the age-old adage of the “mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” The mind is the center where I process what our senses gathered. The Gestalt marathon freed my mind—and thus freed me from it—and attuned me well with my senses. I experienced an awareness that is not only run by the mind but also by the pleading of my guts and senses. (The finish line of the marathon is integration, the mind-and-body split made whole.)

The “frozen seas” are chopped down; the seas become an ocean. My awareness circles above like a bird. But all of life follows the rhythm of life. Parts of my ocean will, in its own time, freeze. However, that’s not a bad thing; it has to happen so I can rest on top the labyrinths.

Koryu, look. The birds are going back north.
I wonder who said that birds are free?
Though they fly in the sky freely,
If they had no place to arrive or branches to rest on,
They might even regret having wings.
What is true freedom?
It is, perhaps, having a place to go back to. (Koumyou Sanzo)

Book Nook: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: On “Burning” Books

2c8fbe5e4422715ae29c6caef51be045“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

FAHRENHEIT 451 (1952) opens with this frightening line. Ray Bradbury writes of a dystopian future where books are burned along with the homes where they are hidden. Here, the firemen’s job is to start fires instead of putting them out. The masses are addicted to watching and discussing TV shows flashing from their “four-walled televisors” and are oblivious or indifferent regarding the imminent genesis of a nuclear war—about their world being “swept with confused alarms and struggle and flight / where ignorant armies clash by night” (Arnold, Dover Beach).

Hitherto, Bradbury’s prophetic legacy remains resonant—even almost solid and identical—in its unnerving resemblances and implications to this modern era of rapid technological progress but with the most of humanity still mindless of its repercussions. Take for example the irony of their ignorance: with tons of information bombarded and crammed into people’s heads, only a little time is now left for quiet introspection and skepticism. People are “[rushed] quickly to conclusions [their] minds [haven’t] time to protest” and thus learning only a little, which is “a dangerous thing” (Pope, An Essay on Criticism).

Due to the ubiquity of the Internet, the endless blabber flooding the social media, and the online articles abominably compressed for quick, shallow reading, elements essential to critical thinking—such as “the quality of information,” the patience and “the leisure to digest it,” and “the [carrying] out [of] actions based on the interaction of the previous two”—are inanely abandoned.

History does not lack but rather possess an almost plethoric memory that bears the perversities of obliterating books, libraries, and whole nations. During the Nazi regime, a bonfire for thousands of books was set in the streets of Berlin, Germany. “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people” (Heine). The first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang also commanded the rigorous abolition of the all chronicles written before his reign and the burying of their scholars because he wanted history to begin with him. The ancient library of Alexandria, a house of incalculable scrolls, suffered from fires throughout the centuries.

Destroying books is the prime symbol of censorship and oppression of thought. But “you don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” says Bradbury. “Just get people to stop reading them.” In Fahrenheit 451, we must note that before the government decreed the burning of books, it was the public who first turned away from reading.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: January 18, 2016)