Creative Nonfiction

What’s Next?

I’ve been telling my friends that I plan to quit music school soon.

To be honest, I always knew I was going to drop out. A degree was never the objective. Instead, I enrolled because I wanted to learn…or at least, that’s the press release. The real answer needs deep introspection, and introspection needs time that’s probably better spent studying for Solfeggio or practicing Czerny.

Time. That’s probably one of the biggest reasons I’m planning to leave UST: music school takes up so much time. And I knew this, my piano teacher repeats to me when I show up to her studio looking run down the nth week in a row. And I did know this. I knew that school would take up time, effort, that I would lose Saturdays and sleep and a whole host of other things.

I also know what a parametric EQ does and how it works. But I still struggle to use it on Garageband.

There’s a lot of difference between knowing and knowing. The latter, I guess, you can only gain through experience. I’ve been in UST for nearly two full school years. If I stick to my plan—and I don’t know if I will—then I won’t last a third. I haven’t made up my mind to quit, but I’m nearly there. The only thing holding me back from definitively making that decision is that I am just as uncertain about why I should leave as I am about why I started in the first place.

I know why I should go. I should go because I keep turning down gigs for this. I should go because I don’t get to sleep much. I should go because there are ministry opportunities that I miss out on because I’m in school on Saturdays (and what nobler thing is there to leave the conservatory for than church?). I should go because, ironically, music is taking time away from music.

But is it really?

Someone asked me—I forget who; maybe it was a lot of someones—what I planned to do after I quit UST. I think the exact phrasing was, “What’s next?” At first, I found the question odd, but then I realise that I have always had something going on. I can’t remember the last time I had Saturdays free; probably back in university, but even then I’m convinced I was probably doing something. For an introvert homebody, I don’t like staying home: I always need to be doing. And, for at least six years and maybe more, that doing has had to do with music.

Back to the question of why I enrolled in music school to begin with. The easiest answer would be that I simply traded ST for UST. The band broke up the year I got in, and school conveniently took up all the hours I would spend rehearsing in Marikina, week after week. If I’m less kind to myself, maybe I’ll even admit that getting into the conservatory was me trying to prove a point: I got in on the strength of two songs I wrote and produced all on my own, no bandmates or audio engineers or “hitmakers.” In that last, horrible year, I remember constantly feeling like I had to prove I was worth the band staying together.

My ahia would say this sounds about right, but they don’t to me. I know they’re correct, somewhere, but like I said before there’s a difference between knowing and knowing. I know what I know isn’t quite it.
I plan to at least finish my four freshman AppMaj requirements (Solo, Duo, Trio, Quartet) and my piano minor before I go. If I go. When I go. To be honest, even now, with Saturday in just a few hours and my dread of it growing, I’m still not 100% sure if I should leave or if I should stay. My old university professor—also a musician, also a current music student—shared a post that went, “When you feel like stopping, think about why you started.”

But what if I don’t remember why I started? Or else, what if there’s nothing to remember? What if I never really had a reason, a real reason; I did this because it was a convenient “next,” because it felt like the logical thing to do, considering my “dreams.” I don’t even know what my dreams are anymore, but that’s something for another time. Or maybe it isn’t, because that’s why I’m writing this to begin with. Because I feel like I’ve lost my way, and now I don’t know where to go or what to do or why I’m even here.

Maybe the harshest truth is this: I knew what I was getting into, what I was going to give up. What I didn’t know then, that I might know now, is that maybe I wasn’t so willing to count that cost. The “self-care” and “self-love” posts on Facebook say that it’s okay to take time out for “mental health,” and I think they’re right, but when is it self-care and when is it just laziness? When is it me being soft on myself?

When do I face myself, look in the mirror and admit that maybe I just don’t have it in me?

I don’t know. All I know is that there are open mics I want to play, dance classes I want to join, ministry opportunities I want to take, and goals I still keep in view, even as I wonder if I’m ever going to hustle hard enough to reach them. There is a Google Keep account with an album’s worth of songs, and a constantly moving target for when I want to release them. There is a sound I keep chasing that I don’t ever know if I’ll be good enough to make.

There’s a weight in my chest I can’t shake, that keeps me awake even after my homework is done.

There’s a wish, faint but if I’m honest getting stronger by the day, to close my eyes and maybe never open them again.

There’s a difference between knowing and knowing. Perhaps that’s why I stay. Because for all of these things I know, I don’t know the answer what’s next.

And I don’t know if I ever will.

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[snippet] Notes: The one who walked away from Omelas.

November 15, 2017

This is the transformative power of a well-told story: it allows you to reach inside yourself and make peace with what ails you. What you need to leave behind.

Externalized as a series of videos featuring attractive young men, my fears and pains and the question of growing up and letting go becomes…easier. Because someone understands. Because we all wish we could run forever.

Except life never promises us forever. Eras end. Chapters close. The only constant is change.

I have a polaroid camera that looks almost exactly (save for color) like one held by crooked fingers in a music video made an ocean away from where I sit. I bought my polaroid camera for the first ever music video we shot. Today, I take it out of the box it’s stored in and snap a picture of the EP–the one beautiful thing–we five created.

Once, I was mother and brother and comrade in arms. Once, but I am none of those things any longer. Instead, I am grown, anchored not by a place in a family I thought I was building, but instead by a sense of purpose that has stayed even after that family had gone.

You can spend all your energy running after a dream, holding on to the shattered pieces of what was left of the family you tried to make.

Or you can use that energy to get on the train. To leave Omelas.

Fall is ending. Soon it will be winter. Next spring, I turn, get older. It is time I grew up, knowing that growing up can, by itself, be a sort of freedom.

Until this cold winter ends
And the spring comes again
And until the flowers bloom again
Please stay there a little longer
Please stay there.

When silence is like starving.

I was thinking about Juana the Mad today.

Or, rather, I was thinking about a friend of mine. The last time we’d spoken, she’d called me out on something but–unbeknownst to her–I was in a bad mood, so it wasn’t the best time, and we’d ended up having an entirely unnecessary word war on, that bane of my existence, Facebook Messenger.

I sent an apology note via chat, but she hasn’t replied yet, and honestly I’m not surprised? I overreacted. Usually, I would bombard her with more messages, verbally bullying her into reassurances of forgiveness, but whether it’s because of pride or exhaustion or simply shame, I can’t bring myself to reach out, and so here we are. Not talking. It hasn’t been a long time (we fought just last Tuesday), and we’ve not talked for longer stretches, but there’s this pervading sense of wrongness to this silence that makes it physically hurt and keeps her on my mind.

So I ended up thinking of Juana the Mad today.

When my friend and I were talking, I would send her photos of her KPop idol crushes, and she would reply with things like:

*aggressively licks screen*

*swallows phone*

I would laugh, each time, but now that I miss her, I’m inclined to pick apart the bits and pieces of our interactions, especially when they were light-hearted and good. I saw this photo today…

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Kim Seokjin (my favorite BTS member) performing Fake Love at BTS’s Love Yourself World Tour in Los Angeles. Photo by @jinkissletsgo.

…and immediately my mind cycled back to those reactions, which made me wonder at how the language of desire–from the “innocent” and playful fangirl crush to the dark and dangerous territory of lust–so often borrows words from hunger.

Which brings me back to the poem at the beginning of this post. The historical Juana was a Castillan queen, older sister to another famous royal, Katherine of Aragon. Like her sister, Juana’s marriage ended in tragedy, with the death of the husband–Philip I, also known as Philip The Handsome–whom she she supposedly loved to the point of obsession: “…when you marry a man more beautiful than you, they say you pretty much lose control of the situation.”

That the historical Juana was actually mad is a subject of historical debate–her reputation might have been a product of a smear campaign–but true or no, the legend lives on that Juana loved her husband so much she refused to bury him, eventually–in Gamalinda’s retelling, at least–eating bits and pieces of his corpse so he could be with her forever.

I remember shuddering when I first read that poem, unnerved by the graphic description of cannibalism. But nowadays, even if those verses still make me feel a little queasy, I can understand the sentiment better, because so much of how we talk about  longing and lust (especially on social media, with #ThirstyThursday and “a whole snack” and all that) involves lips and tongues and teeth.

What I’m about to say next is going to sound super creepy, and maybe get me banned from the VIP section at BTS’s Manila concert (which, fingers crossed, happens next year), but when that photo of Jin popped up on my Facebook feed, my reactions were quick and overwhelmingly physical: widened eyes and sudden intake of breath and a desire to shriek curtailed only by the fact that I was at a shoot for work and the cameras were rolling.

In that moment, I understood all of my friend’s exclamations of wanting to swallow her phone whole; if I had no makeup and less self-control, I might have(?) smashed my face into my laptop screen, eyes-first, until the image was burned into my corneas.

(I warned y’all this would be creepy. BigHit, if your secret internet agents ever see this, please don’t take me seriously. I only want to watch EAT Jin; I don’t actually want to eat him.

Instead of doing that, though, I Googled Eric Gamalinda’s poem about Juana the Mad.

My friend John and I have been talking about beauty, on and off, for the past few days, because we’re both writers and apparently this is the stuff writers talk about casually sometimes (I realize how pretentious that sounds.). Right as I was looking up Philip The Handsome, Juana’s ill-fated husband, John messaged me, asking how I was. I messaged him the poem in reply, followed by an incoherent stream-of-consciousness reflection on why beautiful things–like a beloved husband, or a KPop bias, or maybe even a friendship between two stubborn people who love each other, even if one of them isn’t always the best at showing it–elicit a physical hunger. Why is the language of longing also the language of starvation?

I don’t know what constituted the Catholic royal wedding vows of Juana’s time, but the vows I know include the words “to have and to hold.” If you’re holding on to something long enough, it will leave a mark, will change you in ways you can see and ways you can’t. Maybe when we hunger for something or someone, it’s because we’re longing for that change, the way the food we ingest filters into our bodies, turns into flesh or fat or fuel, becomes a part of us.

(Because you can’t lose that which is a part of you. Because it is always there, right next to your heartbeat, or in your heartbeat, in your bones and blood and flesh forever and ever and ever, Amen.)

There’s good kinds of hunger, and bad kinds of hunger. Anyone who’s ever tried to eat clean knows this. Your body can crave junk in the same way as it craves things that are good for it, and it’s up to you to know the difference. When I messaged John about how I thought the language of love is hunger, he told me he didn’t agree: that hunger and thirst are so base, that to consume is animal, and that love was so much more. And I think he’s right: hunger is not all that love is. I don’t love Jin, not really.

(But…)

My friend and I have not spoken for longer stretches of time, but this time, for some reason (or, well, maybe I know the reason), it hurts, like acid burning in my chest and up my throat. My thoughts are fuzzy. I am unable to focus, tired, sluggish. There’s a dull throb of emptiness in my gut that I can ignore, but can’t quite get used to, because it feels wrong.

There are good kinds of hunger and bad kinds of hunger. I want to believe my body knows the difference, knows which one you’re supposed to feed. I saw a photo of my favorite KPop idol today, and my first reaction was to want to send it to her, to tell her I was licking my screen or swallowing my phone in our shared language of exaggerated cravings. Then I realized that I couldn’t, that I’d decided to hold my tongue instead of swallowing my pride and it hit me why, instead of the self-satisfaction of “standing up for myself” that I’d expected to experience, the silence I’ve chosen feels so very wrong. It feels a little like a body deprived of what’s good for it.

It feels a little like starving.