On Sound and Noise and Finding Something to Say

When I was ten years old, after having moved to Eastern Rizal, my brother, myself and our neighbor went around exploring the neighborhood.

Brookside Hills then was a neigbborhood of 14 enclaves of bungalows and split-levels connected together through snakelines of semi-asphalted roads. The enclaves were surrounded by rice fields. Linked to the rest of Metro Manila by Ortigas Avenue (still an avenue then because it was lined by trees and not just concrete posts now), we felt like we were in the probinsiya because of the mixed smells of rice fields, carabao dung, and dew in the morning.

Each one of us on bikes, we pedalled to an old abandoned, empty water tank up the hill. A flat cylinder four storeys tall and about a hundred feet in diameter, it looked like a huge red (because of the rusty iron wall) pill visible from Ortigas Avenue I would notice getting bigger during the (then) half hour jeepney commute from Lourdes School Mandaluyong where me and my brother studied to our bungalow at Berkshire Street in Brookside.

Getting inside the empty Red Pill, I was immediately drawn to throw a pebble at the rusty iron wall.


Gee, that was loud.

Looking back, I realize it was second nature on my part to fill an empty space with something. Even if it was just sound.

Growing up, there were things I wanted to say. I still remember wanting to speak to my Ninong in the US via long distance over the phone Christmas Day while the rest of us were in the house my mother and her sisters built in Sampaloc.

I just wanted to say "Mano po, Ninong" over the phone and "say Merry Christmas" to somehow bridge the gap of not seeing him for more than a decade after he and his family migrated to California. My dad would have followed suit with us in tow if it weren’t for my Lola who requested that he does not separate my mother from her. Our lives would have been different.

"E wala namang kwenta ang sasabihin niyan!" came a dismissive pre-emptive judgment from the one holding the phone.

Used to not showing my raw emotions, I might have just turned around and decided to forget it.

I had nothing to say. Maybe I just silenced it all.

In the years that followed, I discovered the Sony Walkman and how it filled up my head with sounds. To fill in the silence, I enjoyed every chance to fill up my head with music, audio books, the radio, and how I could physically feel the sound move from the left to the right, to the front and the back of my skull.

I had nothing to say, so I filled up my head with noise.

I enjoyed loud music, as loud as possible.

I was consuming words as well. Read each book in our book collection from end to end. Topics ranged from health, fiction, poetry, Great Books, science, geography, astronomy. We had encyclopedias. I knew which volume contained all about snakes, whales, manatees, dolphins. Where cetaceans were, where crustaceans were.

I had nothing to say. So I wanted to hear what others said instead.

Flash forward to me at 52. I find I now have something to say. However, the moments which allow me to hear my own thoughts are few and far in-between.

During Wednesday night when I attended a media welcome for millennial bloggers from Southeast Asia, I found myself feeling repulsive to the loud music by the (also) millennial band. Oblivious to the noise, the millennial bloggers spent a good half hour taking selfies, groupfies, the boodle fight table, the obligatory hold-the-sponsorproduct or pose-with-the-sponsorlogo, all the while seemingly having a good time while making sure their permed dos, matte makeup and hipster outfits are not ruinned, while they make reprises of their best pouts and duckfaces.

What can I say? They mastered the millennial formula to be famous with the thumb generation.

Yet I was reminded of how I was like at their age. Filling oneself with as much experience and stimuli as possible to have something to say. I waited decades to finally have the kapalmukha to have something to say and to believe that someone would find value in what I say.

But I must admit I admire how they are able to quickly distill days or hours of experience into a few phrases, few sentences, few photographs what would otherwise take me volumes to fully and painstakingly elucidate.

Or maybe what really matters is how big one’s reservoir of experience is.

The Red Pill / Empty Water Tank reverberated a pebble throw and transformed it into a resounding gong.

What mattered was that the tank wasn’t empty, it was huge. And it was filled with the best sound conductor–still air.

I no longer feel I need to put on headphones to fill my head with ideas. I now put on headphones to shut the world out, while listening to music that makes my soul move from left to right, from front to back.

Only then can I hear my thoughts.

Hopefully, you would like to listen to my thoughts, too.

#childhood #musings #anecdotes


The Light in the Kitchen

Note: This piece first came out as a social media post in 2013 after a dream I had about my mother. My friend Joy Rojas, from Hinge Inquirer’s now defunct LOOK Magazine, asked me to write a longer piece for publication. I welcomed the opportunity not just for catharsis but also to honor the memory of my Nanay. With my current residence in disarray, I cannot find a copy of the magazine’s issue where it came out. So here is the piece as I emailed it to Joy, before it was lovingly edited by Alya Honasan. Alya told me she shed tears while she was editing it. I hope it connects with you the same way.

In loving memory of Nicanora Bulanadi Torres Badelles, Jan 10, 1928 – October 2, 2011.

Ever since we were small, Nanay would always be the first person up at dawn. She was our cook, housekeeper, seamstress, laundrywoman, bookkeeper, transportation manager, security manager, waste disposal manager, in-house guidance counselor, etc. In later years, when we already had househelp, she still insisted on doing certain things herself.

In the silent hours of the morning, she flicks on the light switches to light her way as she moves from her bedroom, down the stairs, to the dining area and finally to the kitchen. From the open door of my bedroom, I would wake up and see the light cast from the kitchen. I breathe in deeply and say, “Oh, fried chicken!” or “tortang talong” or whatever would be my packed lunch at school.

Returning home from school, sometimes when it is already dark, I would find the light at the gatepost switched on. She always remembers to turn on the lights for us. I think this is more so that she could see the faces of whoever would be on the gate when she opens the door for a peek before she lets them in.

Later on, being with an independent streak, I decided to leave and be on my own. Everytime I visit, Nanay’s welcomes were always happy. I would help her cook. Or when I have just learned a new dish, I would prepare it and she would always say that it was “masarap.”

Before cellphones, she had this list of our phone numbers beside the telephone so she could call us when she needed to. I had an answering machine once and it recorded her voice. I would erase all the other messages after hearing them, except hers. Her voice had been melodic and though she never sounded disappointed that she wasn’t able to catch me at home, I knew she preferred my real voice over the recorded one. She left messages asking how I was. She would always end with “Sweet kisses to you, my dear.” She also ended her letters to my sister who worked and settled overseas that way.

The answering machine got busted and I couldn’t retrieve her messages anymore.

I would give anything to hear her voice again.

In 2009, two mornings after her 81st birthday, the lights inside her head flickered.

Some turned off, never to turn on again.

It was the morning of her stroke.

We all suffered with that stroke. But she suffered the most. After a long confinement and treatment, after a huge hospital bill we stopped computing and calculating again and again after we hit the one million mark, and heavy debt, we all wished her suffering and ours would end.

On the night she died, I went home after my brother told me she is gone. I felt her forehead with my hand. Cold. It is true what they say, “Malamig na bangkay.” [A cold corpse]. She is gone.

When the funeral people came to pick her up and put her in a body bag, I felt it was the end of a long journey. It was relief.

Most funerals are a time for families to get together. The reunion that I thought would reunite all my brothers and sisters never happened. And I know it pains my mother that it never did.

Maybe I should have done more to put the family together.

A few weeks ago, I had a dream that I was with Nanay. Yet, I knew I was dreaming. I told her, "Ayoko magising, ‘Nay, kasi pag nagising ako wala ka na." [I don’t want to wake up, Nanay, because I know when I wake up you will already be gone.] We were in our old apartment in Boni, Mandaluyong. I kept hugging her tight and telling her I love her. I closed my eyes and tried to capture with all my concentration how soft and warm the feeling of hugging her had always been. She even had that light scent that did not come from any cologne, perfume, or soap. But just from the purity of her heart and soul. Mothers, as they should be, are like that with their sons and daughters. Pure in heart, soul, and intention.

I asked for help regarding work, regarding paying all the money I owe, regarding helping find someone who will make me feel less alone.

She smiled and said yes to a lot of things I asked. Then she walked out of the apartment, crossed the street, looked back and smiled.

I took Psychology in college and knew what the dream meant. It meant she was ready to let us go, and that we only need to remember how much she loves us, that she has forgiven us, and the only strength we need is the strength from our family (which was why it was set in Boni, during happier times when the family was whole). When she crossed the street and looked back and smiled, it meant she had already moved on to a happier life and she will be fine.

And so will we.

Each morning when I come down to the kitchen, I would find the lights on. I tell myself I had forgotten to turn them off again last night.

Choices we make Part 1

In the film "Sophie’s Choice", Meryl Streep’s Sophie had to make a terrible choice, which of her two children will be brought to the gas chamber in Auschwitz during WWII.

Never mind that her character spoke German, never mind that it took her one take, never mind that she won the Oscar for Best Performance by an actress.

It was a choice nobody had to take.

Maybe because my heart is unblocked now after my angioplasty that the memory of something similar came back.

It was the day I had to tell the medical staff of the hospital’s Emergency Room which of my parents will be left to die.

Meanwhile, here is the link to Meryl’s commentary on that scene from SOPHIE’S CHOICE.