Birthdays have a way of making you acutely aware of your body: its existence in time and space; the way it interacts and responds with people and things and sensations and thoughts; its degenerative nature, the way that bodies are on the way to death the moment it begins life.
I’ve celebrated birthdays before, obviously, but I found myself entering another year a few days ago with a heightened sense of my corporeality. The fleshiness of it all, fat and muscle and sinew and bone, the whole humanity of it. I’ve struggled with my body for years, of what it means to me, of what I can construct with it, of its place within a larger body: the community I belong to. It amazes me how I am held by my body and also how I feel disconnected from it, in the sense that I observe it in a mirror and comprehend it as a vessel, but also acknowledge that I’m in fact the vessel. The mental gymnastics it requires to shift from first-person to third-person is quite exhausting.
The day before my birthday, B and I went to the catacombs in Paris, a cavernous system of subterranean tunnels originally dug to mine the limestones under the city. In the late 18th century, these tunnels were converted into an ossuary, with remains from the city’s cemeteries (already overflowing at the time) transferred underground until 1860. Around six to seven million bodies are now inside the catacombs.
“Can you even begin to imagine how all these dead once lived very unique experiences? And now they’re dead,” I told B as we walked through the damp, cold corridors. The walls on both sides of each passage were lined with stacks of femurs and skulls, neatly arranged: no longer organized by the individuals they formerly belonged to. The macabre sight would terrorize the superstitious. I would’ve been terrorized as a young boy, seeing all these bodies.
The first time I started to grasp death as this terminative event was as a kid waking up to the screams of a pig being slaughtered. One early morning during our visit to my mother’s hometown, our uncles took my grandmother’s sow in the backyard and slit her neck, as the animal struggled for its life. It was the same pig my brothers and I played with just an afternoon ago, now being readied for the family feast later that day. The crying grew fainter and fainter until it was gone.
A few years later, when my grandfather from my father’s side committed suicide, I accidentally saw the mortician from a distance as they were embalming his lifeless, pale body, lying on the steel bed naked. While I remember seeing them crack his chest open, I’ve researched how they prepare the body nowadays, which makes me wonder if I had been nurturing a false memory all this time. But despite how I question the truthfulness of that memory, what I’m certain about is the feeling that came to me then and which I’ve taken from that moment thereon: there is an end. And yet, what is the point of it all?
Alive, then dead: what is the line which you cross from one to the other?
On the eve of my birthday, we were relaxing at our friend Thibault’s apartment in the 11th arrondissement (which he left to us while he was in Venice), after a long day of filing ourselves with the cakes and pastries from our new vegan patisserie finds, Land & Monkeys and VG Patisserie. We were tired but we decided to head out for dinner at the cozy Mori Café (another amazing vegan find), where I then proposed that for dessert we go retrace my steps with Gretchen the first time I was in the city.
“You mean go back to Ladurée, where they didn’t serve vegan macarons then, and you had to eat that bland avocado toast?” He said.
“Yes, and Sephora, so I can get back at that racist saleslady,” I retorted.
We took the metro from Bastille all the way to Franklin D. Roosevelt station, a gust of cold wind welcoming us on the way out. Summer has finally given way to autumn, bringing a chill that my body used to tropical weather still resists sometimes.
We then joined the people outside Ladurée. B was amazed at droves of people queueing outside the store along Champs-Elysees, puzzled at all that effort—for what? Overpriced macarons? Which they’ll eat with the Arc de Triomphe as their background, pretending that this is la vie Parisienne?
“Why do people go here anyway? It’s crazy,” B said, typical French snob that he is.
“It’s all in the story,” I replied. “I mean, why do people go to Paris anyway? If you reduce it to its elements, it’s just rocks and soil and buildings and people, in a very specific geographic location. What makes it special? It’s the myth we all tell ourselves about it, that it’s beautiful, and you’re part of this beautiful thing too.”
After about ten minutes in the queue, we were finally allowed into the store. We then bought a box of six vegan macarons.
The flavors were seasonal, and at the moment it was passionfruit ylang-ylang. I didn’t like this flavor that much, compared to the coconut caramel I bought the few times I was stuck at a layover in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, but I have to admit that there’s a certain sense of accomplishment with returning to this very store where I argued with the waiter three years ago that I saw an article that said they served vegan macarons.
Closure seemed to be the theme of this Paris trip. A few days ago I went to the US embassy in the city to process my US visa, which pickpockets stole from me together with my laptop three years ago. I never imagined that I’d return here to get that visa in the same city I lost it; not only that, but I was also here as a soon-to-be French citizen.
My life has taken some strange twists and turns these three years. I’m now married, thousands of miles away from the country I once swore not to leave, and at the same time, trying to acquire a new nationality. I’ve traveled to more cities outside the Philippines in the span of that time than I had before I left the country. B loves to remind me how I described myself to him as an avid traveler. Is this not living the dream?
Weeks before my birthday, I spent some days alone in Barcelona while B was on a work trip in Kenya. I took the three-hour evening train on a Friday night from Montpellier to the city, then rode the taxi to the flat I stayed in. It was right in the middle of the city, along Carrer de l’Hospital—the perfect starting point for going to the museums and monuments located in the city center.
I rented a Donkey Republic bike and cycled to the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona) just a few hundred meters from the flat. I saw the museum the first time I was here (a quick and unplanned stopover as B and I made our way to Madrid) and made a mental note to check it out when I returned.
I leisurely looked at the works inside, at some point fascinatedly sitting in front of “Cruzada”, a video from artist Cinthia Marcelle’s exhibition “A Conjunction of Factors”. Often I feel like an idiot trying to engage with art, wondering if the references I use to properly interpret them are severely lacking. I ask myself a lot: is this even how the artist wants me to understand the work? And does it even matter?
The work that resonated with me the most during that visit was from British photographer Jo Spence, an artist I was happy to have stumbled upon. In her works “Beyond the Family Album” and “Remodelling Photo History”, she turns the camera on herself and puts these photos in panels with short essays that pick apart the meanings of the roles ascribed to her by society–as a woman, as a worker. She acknowledges that the history her photographs present is not exactly realistic, but are only visual constructions. The way people can respond to her deconstruction is only as good as their available lexicon for interpretation.
In one of the panels, she wrote:
“I have never liked anything about the way I look. Each particular part of me was ‘wrong’. Trying to improve things was somehow ‘cheating’. People should have to work to find out what goes on under the surface. (By ‘people’, of course, I meant men.)
There must be a way to reconcile the contradiction of living with a face and body you don’t like. I have only ever been bits and pieces, symptoms and faults. Never an organic ‘whole’. Who could I blame for this. Of course, myself. What rubbish…how could I be to blame. The whole thing is fiction. I am what I do.
I am also what I don’t do.”
There are moments when I sincerely love my body and how I look. I concede that my appearance and the way I present myself have allowed me to be treated better than the regular stranger. I reflect on the times when I had been bullied as a kid for being too skinny and having bad skin and teeth, and how differently people treated me after I fixed my teeth with braces, rid myself of acne with tretinoin, and transformed my body with going to the gym. It’s unfair, the way that people judge you immediately by such superficial criteria, but I admittedly have benefited from this bias that we often shy away from questioning.
Having experienced both sides, I get why telling someone to just love themselves more can sound patronizing: self-love only cocoons you in delusion but won’t protect you from people’s criticisms (or worse, indifference) once you get out there.
I am acutely aware of my body because I have changed it drastically, denied so much from it, and whipped it into submission, that I feel, at times, so tragically disconnected from it. Sometimes I feel my body isn’t me, but a tool, a robotic shell I occupy and augment and repair.
And after all that transformation, what remains? If I did not change, will people even notice me? Perhaps not, because no one did when I was my old self. That’s the consolation I tell myself to justify the decisions I made in the past.
I don’t say that to ask for pity but as a matter of fact. I acquiesced to standards set by society, and I benefited from those oppressive standards.
I struggle with the idea that our character is judged by the way we look, but I also wonder: if I am my body, and I consider my body as part of my self too, then is that judgment of who I am warranted? Or should I reject that judgment because I want to be judged by another characteristic, say my intellect? But even my intellect is determined by another part of my body, which is my brain. Even our characters are a result of physical processes, shaped by our genes and our environment. Our self and identity cannot be real unless there is a body to begin with.
I remember a verse from Paul, the few things that stuck in my head even after I became an agnostic atheist. In the book of Corinthians, he said: “I beat my body and make it my slave, so I myself may win the prize”. The Christian faith, brimming with its dualities, demonizes the earthly form and celebrates the eternal soul. But between the two, there’s only one that we know for sure exists.
Leave a Reply