STAY­ING ALIVE

Sun.Star Davao - - PULL OUT! - BY JHOANNA LYNN B. CRUZ

Tita La­cam­bra-Ay­ala takes her time with friend­ship. One might think her a for­bid­ding pres­ence in pub­lic, with her pursed lips and sharp eyes, watch­ing over ev­ery­thing in al­l­know­ing si­lence. She is a true Crone. In our ini­tial en­coun­ters, I didn’t dare speak to her with­out be­ing sum­moned.

I can’t say when she de­cided we could be friends, al­though she did come to the launch­ing of my book Women Lov­ing in De­cem­ber 2009, of­fer­ing a newly-reprinted copy of her first book, Sun­flower Po­ems in ex­change for mine, say­ing that these were her Baguio po­ems. She meant to un­der­score some­thing we had in com­mon: liv­ing in Baguio City then mov­ing to Min­danao to start anew. She also gave me a coco-bead neck­lace that clashed with my dress, but which I wore any­way like a tal­is­man. When she placed it over my head her­self, it made me feel like a grad­u­ate re­ceiv­ing a medal for aca­demic ex­cel­lence. Or maybe a medal of valor. It didn’t mat­ter that no­body got me flow­ers.

I re­mem­ber on In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day the fol­low­ing year after a meet­ing of the Davao Writ­ers Guild, Ricky de Un­gria asked her whom she was cur­rently read­ing. Tita quickly replied: “Lilia Chua, Edith Tiempo, Mar­jorie Evasco, Ophie Di­malanta, Jhoanna Cruz.”

I had long been a fem­i­nist, but I felt like that mo­ment had turned me into a fem­i­nist writer, join­ing a weave of women writ­ing of their ex­pe­ri­ences as women and for each other. But re­gard­less of the pol­i­tics, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that Tita Ay­ala was read­ing me. Never mind those po­etry an­tholo­gies that ex­cluded me! I needed to keep writ­ing be­cause Tita was read­ing me.

Later that year, she asked me for a suite of ten to fif­teen po­ems be­cause she wanted to pub­lish me in the Road Map Se­ries, which is the first in­de­pen­dently pub­lished chap­book se­ries in the Philip­pines, born out of Tita’s ide­al­ism and lack of funds. She printed the chap­books on only one sheet of craft paper folded into eighths, like road maps. I loved the idea of my po­ems spread out in a map, as if they showed the way. In truth they were proof of me sim­ply try­ing to find my way in this city and my new life. More im­por­tant, be­ing in the se­ries was like a rite of pas­sage. With only 100 copies printed, it was al­most only sym­bolic. I called it Heart­wood. Tita’s daugh­ter, the singer-com­poser Cyn­thia Alexan­der de­signed the cover. It was Tita Ay­ala’s way of of­fi­cially wel­com­ing me as a poet into her fam­ily of Davao writ­ers and artists.

In 2011, the Road Map Se­ries cel­e­brated its thir­ti­eth an­niver­sary at Kanto Bar and Tita her­self asked me to em­cee. It ac­tu­ally rained hard and Tita re­marked that it was a test of loy­alty. In­deed it felt like a fam­ily af­fair, each guest with a story to tell about how meet­ing Tita had changed their lives, help­ing them find their voices. I loved the part when Tita talked about the his­tory of the Road Map Se­ries. She ended with, “If you want to find your­self, get a Road Map!”

Meet­ing the poet Lilia Lopez-Chua, who is now based in the US and whose po­ems were fea­tured as the first Road Map, was a high­light of the evening for me. I used to teach one of her po­ems in my Philip­pine Lit­er­a­ture classes long be­fore I found out she was from Davao. She told me that she loves my Heart­wood, and that when Tita showed the col­lec­tion to her, Lia told her, “This is a work of solid ra­di­ance.” She told me that she hasn’t read any­thing that shone from the core like my po­ems for a long time. Then she thanked me for writ­ing it. She even gamely re­peated ev­ery­thing when I asked to have it in video. It’s not ev­ery day my writ­ing is praised. Later in the night, she shared with me how she had also sac­ri­ficed her writ­ing for ten years in or­der to save her re­la­tion­ship (which has ended). I was struck when she said, “Ev­ery con­tract we make is with the Self.”

At the end of the evening, Tita thanked me for do­ing a great job, then she asked, like a gra­cious host, “Did you have a good time?” She signed my copy of her book, Tala Mundi, “For Jhoanna, soul sis­ter, any­tym, any­where!” I was al­most in tears as I hugged her tight, thank­ing her for hav­ing me in her fam­ily. She pat­ted my shoul­der and said, “Take it easy.”

Be­fore that book ded­i­ca­tion, I had imag­ined Tita as one of my lit­er­ary moth­ers. But she set me right. De­spite the huge gap of years be­tween us, she did not see me as a daugh­ter. Thus be­gan my quest to un­der­stand her bet­ter, to find out what made us sis­ters, which par­ent our souls shared.

She has shared in an in­ter­view that her first poem, “Sun­flower,” still re­mains her fa­vorite be­cause it em­bod­ies what she truly be­lieves in:

…This is the plant of courage grow­ing rank among the stones (how well it hides the bit­ter of its sap) preen­ing with­out pre­tence, lov­ing it­self as much as the source of its roots and its ends in what­ever sea­son or age, warm­ing novem­ber and de­cem­ber’s gloom like, wher­ever it can, a piece of sun.

It is the very im­age of her, I dare imag­ine. And of me, I dare ad­mit. The bit­ter sap of our ex­pe­ri­ences as women may flow through us, but our blos­soms bring some light, even though we don’t try. That we still stand and bear flow­ers is proof of a cer­tain courage that has looked at the dark­ness within and stared it down.

Ini­tially I thought I had more in com­mon with the vi­va­cious Aida Rivera-Ford, with her the­atri­cal per­son­al­ity and in­de­pen­dence. As it turns out, the sullen Tita La­cam­bra-Ay­ala’s jour­ney was par­al­lel to mine. Davao is the par­ent we shared.

Be­fore I met Tita, I used to teach her poem “Cac­tus” in my classes. I thought it was the per­fect im­age for a woman “thirst­ing on the sill” be­cause of ne­glect, yet stay­ing suc­cu­lent within be­cause of her own re­serves. In a po­etry read­ing at the clos­ing cer­e­monies of the Davao Writ­ers Work­shop in 2013, Tita gamely vol­un­teered to read a few po­ems, and then she asked if we had any re­quests. I grabbed the chance. I quickly searched for “Cac­tus” on­line and she started read­ing it. Mid­way through the short poem, she burst into laugh­ter. She couldn’t stop laugh­ing un­til she was in tears. She didn’t fin­ish read­ing the poem, in­stead she told us through her “laugh­ing sobs,” how Joe had hated her cac­tuses.

…Through it all, she en­dured. It was her art that saved her. In her own words, “It’s some­thing to live by…It has kept me go­ing.”

In her eight­ies now, she has stopped writ­ing. When I asked her why, she said of writ­ing sto­ries, “It’s too hard, try­ing to re­mem­ber the past.” It tires her out. As for po­etry, “No one has held my hands with pas­sion. We need that.” I wanted to re­mind her of her own po­ems cel­e­brat­ing the self-suf­fi­ciency of a woman faced with all sorts of ad­ver­sity, but it was not my place. I con­tented my­self with the ev­i­dence sur­round­ing her in her own paint­ings on “palwa,” dried bark of the fox­tail palm after in­flo­res­cence, which she had ad­mit­ted she dis­cov­ered be­cause her hus­band Joe did not share his art sup­plies with her.

Like Tita, I have found so­lace in plants and the metaphors they present, de­spite my “black thumb.” Ev­ery­thing I tried to grow dies. Folk be­lief would say I have “hot hands.” Even when I bought the plants al­ready es­tab­lished with roots, I would man­age to kill them. So it was vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble for me to grow plants from cut­tings or seed. If I wanted a plant to sur­vive, I did not touch it at all. I know it was my pent-up anger that killed the plants. My anger aris­ing from a sense of in­jus­tice about the cards that I had been dealt. But surely I have reached a stage of greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion for these cards and for learn­ing how to make some­thing of them. If I can’t get a Royal Flush in this round, maybe I can set­tle for a Royal Pair. Or sim­ply fold and wait for the next round. There is al­ways a next round.

It should re­quire some sort of guile some ge­nius to sub­sist on sun some lake of sand (have both for free!) and come out look­ing freshly green, (juicy even)

as if in spite of as if in fun.

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