How We Begin

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A hotel room in Singapore, 2013
This is how we begin:
Inch by inch, slowly. Uncertain.
A space, made for one’s self, outside the world.
***
There is the you that faces everyone.
A semblance, perhaps.
A ghost, maybe.
A facade. 
Plywood walls of smiles and handshakes and embraces.
​You start with the fragile things. Then slowly, you put up the steel frames, the bricks.
​Until again, you have built a fortress.
​You are impenetrable.
***
But: leave a little door open.
Just a small crack.
Let the morning light come in.
Let it show you the way.
And when you are ready to begin, walk outside slowly.
​Then breathe.
​​Read Next: To Oppose the Pause

I Did A Thing

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A still from “Delia & Sammy”, a feature length finalist in CineFilipino 2018

Okay, indulge me please. 

Sometime last year, my friend Sher approached me excitedly about this film they were producing. She sent me the script over e-mail, and I read through it with such enthusiasm I was able to finish it in around an hour.

Of course, I may have lost some nuances in the dialogue because of my speed reading, but I knew the script had potential. At turns, the story written by Therese Cayaba (who also directed the movie) is funny, sad, and heart-wrenching. It reminded me of “1st ko si Third” & “Bwakaw” because of its sensitive portrayal of people in their twilight years.

Sher asked me if I could join the cast, to fill in (in her words) one of the “smaller roles of annoyed neighbors and family members”. Maybe it was the early morning daze that got to me (we were sharing ideas about the script close to 1 a.m., after all) when I immediately said yes.

​I’m glad I did. It was an interesting experience, to say the least. Little did I know that I would be acting alongside heavyweights such as Jaime Fabregas, Rosemarie Gil, Dido Dela Paz (whose performance in the critically-acclaimed 2017 movie “Respeto” was amazing), Lui Manansala, and Anthony Falcon–and with a speaking role, at that.

The two main characters–the eponymous has-been actor Delia and her husband Sammy–are both very unloveable and flawed. They struggle to live through a time that no longer remembers them, while still grasping at the privilege they once possessed and had already lost. They are difficult people: both to each other and to everybody else.

Despite this, you can’t help but empathize. You sense their desperate struggle to be relevant. They claw for attention, as much as they acknowledge how the world that once adored them has already moved past them.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, or give away the little part I had in the movie (I encourage you to watch it: see the screening schedules here.) Frankly, I don’t have delusions of ​​fame out of this (if anything, I might end up like Hilda Koronel’s character in “Crying Ladies“, who can’t help but remind people of her bit part in Darna & The Giants).

But go see it. With your parents and grandparents, if you can. Especially if they’ve made your life extra difficult.

​It’s a memento mori of sorts. 😉

Bookends

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I am writing this as I’m taking a break from packing all my belongings in a large suitcase, seeing all the things I’ve accumulated over the past few years. I am moving out of my unit this end of April–the end of my two-year lease in this studio and a four-year stay in this building.

It’s strange and a bit surreal to see all my possessions unravel, the way my whole life is summarized by the objects and trinkets I’ve accumulated.

Begin at the End

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Indonesia, 2012

Time.

Recently, a friend and former colleague passed away in his sleep, much to the surprise of all of us he left. He was young—in his early 40s. You could say there still was more to life at that age.

But life goes on. We amble forward.

The inevitability of death shouldn’t be that surprising, when one thinks about it. At times it comes quietly; sometimes, violently.

My uncle fell off a cliff a few months after his wedding, his face crushed almost unrecognizably when they found him. At age fifteen, I saw my grandfather commit suicide, ending a long bout with depression. Just a few years before that, my grandmother passed away, in agony over a prolonged disease. My friend’s brother suffered an aneurysm—same age as I was. Another friend’s dad died while taking a shower.

Quickly, slowly. Today, tomorrow, one of these days.

It will happen to the best of us. And to the worst. Just give it time.

In death, we are all humbled as equals.

That sounds morbid, perhaps. We don’t talk about dying that much. It’s not polite to talk about death, and leaves many of us squirming in our seats. We’d like to believe we’d be spared of it, that we will be the exception rather than the rule.

But maybe we should talk about dying more.

In Bhutan, they say people try to think about dying every day, to remind themselves of their mortality, which supposedly helps with the appreciation of life.

Quoting a BBC article:

“In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologists Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumesiter divided several dozen students into two groups. One group was told to think about a painful visit to the dentist while the other group was instructed to contemplate their own death. Both groups were then asked to complete stem words, such as ‘jo_’. The second group – the one that had been thinking about death – was far more likely to construct positive words, such as ‘joy’. This led the researchers to conclude that ‘death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts’.”

Contemplating about death is not the exclusive purview of Eastern culture. The concept of memento mori, after all, had became popular in the west during the Middle Ages, and has probably influenced many of today’s artworks (Damien Hirst’s bejeweled skull comes to mind.)

Not to be a curbside prophet proclaiming doom and destruction, but the start of the year has made me think about death more than the usual. The constant thought that my lifespan is but a mere speck in the history of the world (and the universe, too), challenged my priorities and perspectives. Specifically, how do I create something long-term, while at the same time, make the most of the short life I have? How can I ensure that my life brings the most meaning, while at the same time, not sacrifice the little pleasures of the now?

I will not lie. I wish for a world like San Junipero in “Black Mirror”, where we can live forever, even as altered forms of consciousness. I want to witness the changes in human history, and I feel that my lifespan is too short to witness crossing over the civilization types on the Kardashev scale. (A pretty exciting prospect to see, in my opinion.)  

Thinking about my limitedness has also made me consider how a lot of things we subscribe to are superfluous. I imagine the many things we strive for that we could perhaps do without: the eternal climb for social status, the walls we build to exclude, the desire to acquire more.

I remembered a dream I once sought: to experience the depth of what it means to be human—to the best of what I could do, and what I have.

Stepping outside of my introverted self, I took a chance and set up to meet some of my online friends, creating an opportunity to see them offline. It was an exercise in empathy, I believed: for me to withhold judgment, and listen to opinions that I might not exactly share, but might be worth considering. I enjoyed these moments of discussion, as it allowed me to see more views from various lenses, and to (perhaps) be reminded that, to paraphrase Desiderata, can discover certain truths in the  clear silence,  and there are stories waiting to be told and heard, by and from people we maybe once thought of as “dull” and “ignorant”.

When I die (or before I transcend into another kind of life, who knows), I want to look back and think that I have done more, that I have left the world a better place than I saw it. It scares me to think that I have not done enough. What is enough exactly, I could never know, but I want to reach a time when I could say that the life I had lived was not purely for myself.

In time, hopefully.

A Softer World

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“”Little Children on a Bicycle”, by Ernest Zacharevic (taken during my first visit to Penang, Malaysia in 2013)
I’m lucky.

Before I begin to even delve into the many things that I feel lucky to have (which is not the intention of this post), I understand that it sounds as if I’m smug about the privilege that I have.

Of course, allow me to defend myself, and say that I mean it with utter humility, the way I just said how lucky I am.

However, I know full well that there is always that other layer of meaning, that unsaid message that is just underneath the statement: that there is an undeniable confluence of privilege that I have received, which is not readily available to the rest.

Perhaps even the fact that I pass it off as luck (or as how religious people say it, blessings) only serves to mystify the phenomena of advantages, as if a karmic force is efficiently at work in this universe.

I don’t mean to do that. While I believe in the value of hard work and sheer determination, I recognize that there are people who, regardless of their talents and grit, will never have what I have, merely because the system is rigged against their favor.

(To digress, I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”, as a relevant book to this discussion.)

Yesterday, at the panel discussion of Ur_Tadhana’s season finale viewing party, I was reminded again of how there’s so much unfairness and inequality in the world. We are constantly being assessed by everyone around us according to what they deem is correct or proper or superior, and often times these expectations we fail to live up to stop us from accessing a lot of opportunities that could otherwise empower us.

Fat. Asian. Black. Latino. Gay. Effeminate. Ugly. Poor. Disabled.

So many labels. So many stereotypes. So many walls.

It’s very, very depressing.

And you know what’s even more depressing is that, yes, I admit I am sometimes complicit with these things, either by sin of omission or commission.

Because when you’re lucky, it’s easy to look the other way, and say, nope, that’s not my business.

So what do I really want to say?

I think I cannot overstate the value of empathy.

When we try to live the realities outside our sphere of privilege, we get to see that there are problems that can be solved, and there are solutions that will benefit a greater good.

We can step out of our small circles to bring more people in, and make the circle bigger for all.
For me, a goal very close to my heart would be seeing my LGBT brothers and sisters experience less discrimination, and enjoy the many things that I am enjoying right now, just because I happened to be at the right place and at the right time.

I don’t want to sound messianic about this, but I’d like to think that we can do things that make things better, and to lift each other up.

Because wouldn’t it be nice to make other people feel luckier too?

Counting Down the Days

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A blur
Where did the year go? (And how many people across the world are saying the same thing?) 

Truth be told, there were times when I’d remember a memory (the Coldplay concert in Taiwan, for example) and realize that it happened just not too long ago. 

A few days, a few weeks, a few months back.

Glowing in the dark @coldplay #ColdplayTaipei #AHFODTour2017

A post shared by Evan Tan ❎ (@evanaguilartan) on

Our first trip to Balai La-Hi happened in 2017 too! (And I can’t wait to return.) 

Terrace House: Boys & Girls in Marinduque #BalaiLahi #HayBalai #travel

A post shared by Evan Tan ❎ (@evanaguilartan) on


​It feels surreal sometimes, reminiscing–as if  you’re watching a distant bay as you head into vast sea–venturing into the great unknown, while waxing nostalgic about the things that felt familiar.

When one thinks about it, there’s a certain sense of comfort in the things one is acquainted with. (Better the devil you know, as the saying goes.) And I guess that’s the reason why a lot of people get stuck in a lot of shitty situations. We’re very adaptable that way. We shrug our shoulders and roll up our sleeves, whispering to ourselves, “Hey, it can’t be that bad. This is normal. This is okay.” 

You look at a speck of dust close enough, and begin to believe it’s all the world is made of.

But it’s not. We just get used to things. We settle with friends who treat us awfully, jobs that leave us with no sense of purpose, or relationships that make us question our worth. 

Some people stay rooted, choosing to wrap their branches around the life they’re currently in. Others though aspire for more. They demand something bigger, something greater. They dream better dreams. 

This coming new year, I want to look ahead, farther–and only take what strengthens me. I want to wean myself from everything that holds me back–the things that do not help me grow into empathy or kindness.

I’ve always said that I seek the maximum human experience: to know and to feel the gradations of what is to be human. Slowly, I am realizing that staying insular–that is, being dismissive of other people’s lives as unworthy of exploration, prevents me to understand the textures and contrasts of human experience.

I am learning. I won’t say that the next year will make me reach a zenith of sorts. Obviously, the goal is not truly a goal, as cliche as that sounds–but rather, more of immersing one’s self in the journey, and to be attuned to what one needs, at a particular time, and a particular place. For now, I believe what I need, most of all, is being more open and being more sensitive.

With 2017 almost over, I count the days to the end excitedly.
​ 

Higit sa Salita

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Yogyakarta, 2012

Dear Ate Belle,

​Kamusta? 

 Alam ko na wala namang point na magsulat ng sulat sa mga patay. Pero iniisip ko, siguro, kapag pwede na ang mag-time travel, madadala ko itong sulat na ito sa’yo. O baka, merong makakabasa ng sulat na ito sa future, at magta-time travel siya para ipabasa sa’yo.

Mahigit isang taon na nung nawala ka. Minsan, nakakalimutan ko na wala ka na. Kapag nagluluto ako, o nagtitiklop ng mga linabhan, o naggo-grocery, iniisip ko kung paano mo ginagawa ito dati para sa amin. 

Siguro napakareductive na isipin na ito ang mga bagay na nagpapaalala sa akin nung buhay ka pa. Sa makakabasa, siguro iisipin nila na napakababaw ng perception ko tungkol sa’yo, na ang naiisip ko lang ay yung mga panahon na naninilbihan ka. Na nagsisilbi ka.

Pero para sa akin, dun mo higit na ipinakita ang pagmamahal mo. Doon ko pinakanaramdaman ang pagmamahal mo sa amin. Sa serbisyo. Na inalay mo ang buhay mo para sa amin. Marahil, sa tahimik mong paraan, ipinakita mo na mahal mo kami. 

Kasi hindi ba, ganun talaga ang pag-ibig? Na wala iyon sa salita, kung hindi sa gawa. Sa araw-araw na pagpaparaya, na pagpapatuloy, na pagpupursige. Marahil, ang malaking aral na naituro mo sa amin ay mas matimbang ang pag-ibig na ipinamalas sa gawa, mahigit pa sa salitang binitawan dala ng bugso ng damdamin.

Naiisip ko, para saan? Para saan ang lahat? Karapat-dapat ba kami sa pag-ibig na binigay mo? Minsan iniisip ko na hindi kami siguro ang karapat-dapat nakatanggap ng pagmamahal mo. Siguro may ibang tao na mas deserving nuon. 

Ngunit, siguro, hindi mo naman inisip na may kapalit, na sa bawa’t inalay mo, may nakaabang na kabayaran. Kahit na nanilbihan ka bilang kasambahay, alam ko na hindi mapapalitan ng kahit anong halaga ang buhay na ibinigay mo para sa amin. 

Gusto kong matuto kung paano magmahal katulad mo: na kahit nakakatakot, ay patuloy na nagbibigay. 

Ate Belle, iniisip ko na yakap kita ngayon. May isang hibla sa kawalang-hanggan na magkayakap tayo, at hindi iyon natatapos. Sa isang hibla ng kawalang-hanggan, hawak mo ang kamay ko. 

Mahal na mahal kita. Nami-miss kita, Ate Belle. 

Paalam muli,
​Evan

Let’s Talk About Depression

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Siumou Chow’s “Solitude”, taken during a 2014 trip in Penang, Malaysia

Recently, comedian Joey de Leon got a lot of flak because of his insensitive remarks about depression.

Yung depression, gawa-gawa lang yan,” he flippantly said, and asked people to not support anyone who claims to suffer from it.

He has apologized since. A lot of rebuttals have also been made online. The incident became a necessary springboard to give this issue wider attention.

With all the noise (albeit welcome), I felt that adding more to the buzz would be futile. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that I needed to talk about my experience. I needed to own up to what I felt, and make people who feel the same way know they’re not alone.

Here’s the thing: I’ve struggled with depression for years. And like others who suffer from it, I’ve kept silent about it because of the stigma around the condition–as if it’s a flaw we’ve brought upon ourselves.

Truth be told, I’ve heard the same thing Joey had said from family, friends, and exes, right to my face: it’s all in my head. I’m just one prayer away from solving everything. I should just toughen up and ignore it.

While I know how well-meaning some of these statements were and are, they dismiss the breadth and depth of depression. Trust me, I try. A lot of us try. All the time. Every day we wake up trying to convince ourselves that everything will be okay. We try to keep the anxiety and fear at bay–pushing forward, moving on. 

We learn to compartmentalize and hide feelings behind layers because sometimes, it feels that the only way we can survive is through denial. Sometimes days pass by like a blur and it feels like we’re drowning. While a lot of us get to resurface for air, many don’t. They never make it to the light at the end of tunnel.

I almost thought I wouldn’t.

As a young kid, I’ve always had suicidal thoughts. Sometimes they would come even when I didn’t feel sad at all. I would cross the street and think about getting hit by a car. I would look outside a building and suddenly wonder how it would feel jumping out. I would imagine being in a plane crash.

​It felt like a glitch in my head that persisted, like a dark cloud hovering all the time.

I’ve had attempts in the past, and while I’m not proud of them, I’ve come to learn from them. It used to be that I was looking for a quick fix. I thought seeing a psychiatrist and getting medicated would solve everything immediately. When it didn’t, I gave up the medications and  quit the sessions, convinced that I didn’t need them anymore and they weren’t working.

I was wrong to have done that. While the depressive episodes are less frequent than before, it still comes severely–and sometimes, not as sadness, but as waves of anger. The thoughts still come, every now and then: I’ve just learned to fight back. I’m scared I will, at one point, lose.

Fortunately, I know better now.

I’ve promised myself I will see a psychiatrist again soon. I am seriously considering getting medication again. 

I don’t want to lose.

I want to stress that this isn’t me trying to get away with my mistakes. People with depression don’t want a free pass in life. I don’t want to use depression as an excuse, and neither do I want people to think I’m less competent.

(Also, the last thing I want to happen is have people connect my being gay with my depression. Trust me, I’ve heard people say, or at least hint: “Malungkot ka kasi bakla ka.”)

People think we want cheerleaders. But we don’t want people telling us everything will be okay. (You know how insensitive it is when people tell those who just had a loved one die that everything will be okay? Yes, that’s how many depressed people think about those who say “Cheer up!”.) The optimism is great, but making presumptions about how we will feel and waving away our present situation doesn’t make us magically feel well.

Don’t think you can fix depressed people with trite advice and inspirational quotes you picked up from an Instagram post or two. Sincerely try to be there, to care, to hear us out. Don’t assume that people with depression follow a template. We don’t all look alike. Some of us are high-functioning. We wear a lot of masks.

As a teenager, I lost my grandfather to depression. He hanged himself in the same room I was sleeping in. I think about that moment at times, and I wonder what I could’ve done to make him feel better. I know I could’ve tried harder to listen, to empathize.

Empathy. We really need more of it.

Instead of throwing shade, we could try to brighten someone else’s day. We could be the support system that our loved ones need. We could be the ones who acknowledge that not everyone is okay all the time, and assure them that that’s okay. 

Let’s talk about depression more. Let’s be more understanding of people who are suffering from it. You never know whose life you can save by just being there.  

If you’re feeling emotionally unwell, seek help: the Hopeline hotline is available 24/7. Call (02) 804-HOPE (4673) or 0917 558 HOPE (4673).

Of Growing Up, Getting Along, Letting Go, & Being Grateful (An After-Birthday Post)

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Thanks Shaira Luna for this photo 🙂

After four years, my good friend friend Adele and I finally met again, like the old days.

She was attending Muni’s zero-waste lifestyle meetup this afternoon in Makati, and since my Saturday morning was free anyway, we thought we should meet over coffee. (The coffee part was actually a surprise for her since, unlike her, I was never a big fan of coffee. Frankly, I still am not the expert on it, but I’ve realized that mornings are much easier to survive with a cup or two.) 

It’s not as if we’ve never had any free time over the past four years. I would admit that I could’ve easily gone all the way to Quezon City just to see her–I’ve been in her part of town a couple of times over the past four years, and I could’ve just messaged her and set up dinner. She probably thought the same way whenever she was in Makati for an event or two. 

But we never did.

The point is: it’s okay. 

Maybe that’s growing up: you become okay that your friends and loved ones live separate lives, and you realize that the true test of your relationship is how you will always have something to go back to when you meet again, whenever that may be. 

When I saw her again, I felt genuinely happy just talking to an old friend–finding ourselves sharing what has transpired in our lives all those years we’ve never seen each other. We may have gone through a lot of different experiences apart, but somehow, we know how to come back to our familiar place/space. 

It’s not the same with all of our friends. Some have grown distant, and some have grown away from our direction. Some relationships we’ve learned to let go of, if only because they have become unhealthy for us. We mourn some of them; some of them, we cheerfully cut out. 

I celebrated my birthday this week thinking about the connections I’ve had over the past three decades, and realized how I’ve managed to survive a lot of things I’ve never thought I would’ve survived, with the help of people around me.

(Not to say that my life has been supremely difficult: I know many others who have experienced harsher things than I have, and I would say that life has been generally kind, despite the anxiety and depression I battle with at times.)

I’m thankful for the people who have helped me go through the slumps and pits. Often I wonder what I have done to deserve all the help I’ve received in life.

I am very lucky. I know I’m not exactly the easiest to get along with, and I could be awkward and weird at times. But despite how I am, there are people who choose to put up with me and try to understand me. There are people who believe in what I can do and who I can be. 

Some of those people I haven’t been very kind to, if only because I didn’t know any better. I’ve been a jerk (that’s one thing I learned a few birthdays back.)

So what am I trying to say, really? 

I guess what I sincerely want to say is: sorry and thank you. I’m sorry if, at one point in your life, I’ve made you feel awful, or I’ve caused unnecessary hurt to you. I’m also thankful that you have shared a part of your life with me. 

I hope that when we meet again, we’ll find that place of familiarity too, no matter how long it has been since we’ve seen each other. I hope that we’ll discover the good we have done to each other’s lives, and share the lessons we have learned. I hope that we will find ourselves in better circumstances. 

​Until then. 😃

A Life More Valuable: Overthinking Mikhail Red’s “Birdshot”

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You might have heard about (or a permutation of) the popular trolley problem in your Philosophy class. 

It goes like this: 

A speeding train which lost its brakes is about to hit five people ahead. They won’t be able to get out of the way in time. There is, however, one option to rescue all of them: you, the driver, can pull the lever, and redirect the train to another track.

The only problem is that, there’s a child playing at the other track, oblivious to the possibility that a train might hit her. Choose to save the five, you kill the girl; choose to save the girl, you kill the five adults.

Who should you save? What is the most ethical thing to do?  


​In Mikhail Red’s mystery-thriller film “Birdshot“, the ethical dilemma is not about who should live–all the lives that should’ve been saved are already dead. But the moral quandary is nonetheless troubling.

Two crimes are revealed in the story: the kidnapping of farmers on their way to Manila to file a case against the landlord of their farm, and the murder of the haribon kept in the eagle sanctuary. Officer Domingo, one of the leads in the movie, was tasked to solve the kidnapping first, but as he digs deeper into the case, his superior pulls him out of it and assigns him to the second case, much to his frustration.

When he insists on solving the kidnapping, his partner officer Mendoza sternly warns him: “What if you find out something that you’re not supposed to discover?”

It’s not only Domingo who grapples with the issues of an insatiable quest for the truth and the problem of blind obedience: Maya, the girl who shot the eagle, realizes the conflicts that both present as the film progresses. Repeatedly, Maya’s father Diego tells her that she doesn’t understand anything, and it is true–the gravity of her crime eludes her. Despite her ignorance, she is not exempted from suffering the consequences of her crime which, it must be said, she only committed in the first place because she was obediently following her father’s advice that she needed to fend for herself.

It is Domingo, however, who must answer these questions: who deserves justice the most? Which life has more value?

​One might easily say that it’s ridiculous to compare an animal to people. I guess what exasperates me is that the film drills how ludicrous Diego’s predicament is–that he is made to prioritize solving the eagle’s death over the disappearance of the farmers. Thoughtlessly, one might say that it should not even be a choice at all. To many, human life takes priority over an animal’s.

My kneejerk reaction is, I would most likely agree–I would immediately save people over an animal. But this shortsightedness, to only prioritize what we feel is within our in-tribes (whether our families, our community, and our species) is perhaps what has created the problem in the first place.

When one thinks about it, the murder of the farmers in the film is the result of this shortsightedness: that the landowner’s needs take priority over the farmers’.

It is devaluing the other that makes it easier to destroy them. 

​In a reality of limited time and resources, ascribing value to certain things helps in increasing efficiency. We learn how to “better” spend our hours and money on things that create “more” for us. But is it this very problematic way of ascribing value and putting people in hierarchies the very thing that is creating more problems for us?

You might say that this is futile overthinking. Some would even argue that value is lost when everything is given equal value.

​Yes, I think Domingo should’ve focused on solving the kidnapping first. But the disgust over not being made to do that should not be because he is made to choose the other case–it should come from how both lives are not seen with the same value.

Birdshot is being shown nationwide from August 16-22, as part of the official selection of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino.

Another interesting read: How do Buddhists answer the trolley problem?