The Politics of Cool

“Priscilla,” you called out. It took me a few seconds before it registered and I stopped and turned, responding to a name from my past.

My family had always called me Pierra. But in grade school, when I was fed up with the boys making fun (“Ford Fiera, beep beep,” they would chant), I insisted everyone call me by my safe, generic second name when the new school year rolled around.  And so it began.

“Hey,” I said, engaging in random small talk about the decades gone by, complimenting you on your mini me running circles around us, before he pulled Daddy away. “Nice seeing you, Priscilla,” you called out over your shoulder. I smiled. Priscilla. Who was that?

Memories stirred.

Third grade, section C. The Priscilla you knew always had her nose in a book. I practically lived in the library, spending every break wandering blissfully through the maze of shelves, or hunched over the community table, devouring fables, fairy tales, Bible comics, Nancy Drew, everything but actual food. While the other girls played with Barbie, jackstones, or Chinese garter, my library card was my prized possession.

I lived in my head, oblivious to the world around me, marching to the beat of my own drum. I had no qualms about standing up to the cutest boy in class, telling you to shut up when you began picking on our classmate, the new girl from Africa. You made fun of her skin color and kinky hair, reacting the way most people do, to something unfamiliar, to someone who is “different.”

Navigating the minefield that is grade school, I would later learn to blend in, fly below the radar, play by the rules. Never. Be. A. Target. For. Envy. Or. Ridicule. I learned how to deftly skirt stereotypes and playground politics, perpetually on the defensive. Luckily, I would befriend the cool kids and be golden by association, trading in my eccentricity for diplomatic immunity.

But back in the third grade, Priscilla was still wonderfully off-kilter, bright-eyed and brave, speaking her mind or shutting the world out, whatever and whenever she felt like it. The new girl and I were as thick as thieves, kindred spirits giggling conspiratorially, or sitting side by side in comfortable silence, absorbed in our own books. We held picnics in the soccer field, walked hand in hand in the halls, and in class, passed each other notes written in code. When she moved away and I resumed my solitary ways, some of the taunts were redirected toward me. How queer you are, I was told.

When I look back at how you used to tease me by sticking your hand into my book, splaying it on the page so I couldn’t read, I realize you were trying to play, the only way a third grade boy knew how. But back then, I thought you were infinitely, infuriatingly mean, and I refused to acknowledge you (though at night, you inhabited my geek girl dreams). All the more, you were amused.

When did you stop teasing me? Probably when I started to care what people thought, and started to conform. When I tried to emulate everyone else, never completely blending in, nor standing out, neither here nor there, always on the fringes… Better boring than bullied, I told myself; this was survival of the fittest.

Today, I wonder, which Priscilla you remember—the girl with her nose in a book, occasional classroom referee, unabashed introvert? Or, the nice but bland teenager, pretending to be a social butterfly, wanting desperately to be liked?

*            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

I’ve since reclaimed my name, embracing the quirky, original way “Pierra” rolls off the tongue. I forgive my survival instincts for kicking in; I understand conforming to everyone’s idea of “normal” can sometimes come in handy, even in adult life. But when I remember my favorite version of myself, I realize: all these years, I wasted so much effort, miserably trying to fit in, when it is perfectly cool to quietly stand out.

Fly

San Francisco, 2006.

San Francisco, 2006.

The ground falls away beneath her feet

Is she awake

or is she asleep

Could she be dreaming

dreaming this life

Her lover’s leaving

In goes the knife

The nightmare begins to breathe

The sadness blows her off the ground

She’s loved him so long

She cannot look down

But now she’s flying

She’s suddenly free

Terror subsides, and

the girl becomes me

I lost my love

and now I am found.

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Father’s Day

Father's Day

For girls, their father is their first love. For me, my first heartbreak, too. I don’t remember when I discovered he wasn’t invincible; but it took years for me to recover. What do you do when you can no longer believe in your superhero?

But I believed in him, anyway. And today, I can see beyond black and white, I can practice kindness and empathy, and I can understand–even appreciate– people’s humanity, because my father is inherently good, but hopelessly flawed. And I love him fiercely, all the same.

Field Trip

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“Woooo,” cried the kids on the MRT,

thrusting their hands in the air

as if on a carnival ride

 

I can’t help but smile.

Looking down the length of the women’s car

A sea of straight, shiny, shampoo commercial-worthy hair

Stockinged feet, thrust into slippers

Plastic bags holding precious footwear

I want to ask each girl

Where are you headed?

 

In the crush of people

I unfurl my invisible wings

Flap, flap, then

wrap them around me like a shield

Too many friends pick-pocketed

I wield my umbrella like a weapon

Just you try to snatch my bag

 

I alight at Ayala Station

And walk down the road that will take me to

My old neighborhood

 

The trees wave, hello, hello

The bougainvilleas blush

But when I reach the meeting place

Somehow I feel incongruous

In a sea of effortless chic

Country club cool

Beads of sweat betray me

Rivulets rain on my dress

What good is my umbrella?

 

Ah, here she is.

Stepping into my best friend’s BMW

Worlds collide

Suddenly, I want to go

Woooo

Thrusting my hands in the air

As if on a carnival ride.

Sunstroke

Peacock Garden Bohol

 

That summer,

I came alive.

Beneath the burning sun

and the heat of his gaze

My skin unfolded,

revealing a wide-eyed nymph,

a blushing stranger

in my place.

 

I couldn’t swim;

but I remember he pulled me

into the water,

and gently immersing me

he performed my

baptism.

 

And as I floated with him

I saw stars on the sea’s surface,

transient diamonds crowning him.

 

That brief summer,

I bordered on the

blasphemous—

worshipping a lesser god,

the deity of the sun.

 

So that when the light faded

my faith came crashing down.

And I learned that

handmade gods

have human weaknesses

when he let me drown.

Thank you and Goodbye

We are the The Peacock Garden again, an elegant resort in Bohol that sits on a hill overlooking the sea. Its manicured gardens provided the perfect location for a shoot that I had envisioned the last time I was here. As I type this, we are waiting for the hotel van to shuttle us back to the airport; already, a slight melancholy is settling in, and I realize I am not ready to leave just yet. This lovely place, full of lovely people, has begun to feel like home. Though we were mostly busy shooting, writing, styling, here, I’ve also been able to exhale. And I am deeply grateful to be able to work and play in the same space. Thank you, Peacock Garden. Thank you, universe.

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A magical sunset

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On the edge

 

Ontheedge

Some days,
I’m on top of the world
Delirious, ecstatic, jumping for joy

On other, on-the-edge days
When I feel I’ve lost my footing,
I imagine myself
Splayed at the bottom,
Lying broken

I could stay this way,
immobile on the ground,
staring up at the sky for days on end (or, in today’s case, floating in a lethargic melancholy in bed, still in jammies on a busy Monday afternoon)

Until salvation in a happy thought,
kind gesture, tub of chocolate ice cream (endorphins!)
or impending deadline comes
To shake me out of my stupor
To blow the whistle on the pity party,
Time is up!
Now to
pick myself up, dust myself off
In my inner Humpty Dumpty routine
“Muster the Rohirrim!”
–Steady now–
I’ve got the next of my nine lives to begin.