After living in 12 different houses over the course of 50 years, I realised that the way to appraise space is to discover how it provides access to nature. In one of the homes that I furnished and decorated according to my dreams, I made do with a small piece of sky that could not fit two constellations. And yet I stayed there for eight long years, sending out my prayers every night to a God who lived inside a few square inches of heaven. This is a story of my journey toward the place where I could count all the stars.
Getting away. After a nasty argument with an uncle when I was in my early 20s—I talked back and it escalated, something that was unacceptable in my family—my mother helped me escape future confrontations by leasing a cheap room for me in a turbulent part of the neighbourhood. I left the house I grew up in and moved to where I had to share a bathroom with one million other tenants in the decrepit building we lived in. This restroom setup was the worst part. My closet, however, was roomy enough to fit an entire person. The only aspect of nature I can remember from this space was the lone window that afforded me a view of, and dust from, the busy street outside.
A fountain, a tree. The second home I lived in was private and cosy enough for me to want to fashion a small water fountain using a ceramic jar, bamboo slat, a small motor, tiny stones and seashells, and a few strands of greenery. Here I cooked my first lumpiang sariwa (fresh vegetable roll) from scratch, arranged my books on the built-in shelves, and installed tiny spotlights to dramatically and warmly illuminate my modest library. I tried to grow roses in pots but they all died after some weeks. I tried to grow herbs like lagundi, basil, and oregano. The basil died first, but the lagundi grew into a small tree. My heart broke when I left this house and sometimes I wonder if my tree is still alive.
A mountain village. One day, I woke up so jaded about city living that I decided to pack my belongings and move to an old house near the foot of Mt. Makiling in Los Baños, Laguna. On weekends, rather than go to a mall, I would walk up a forest path to spend an afternoon embraced by the brisk mountain winds while I battled my thoughts. Looking out the window in the evenings, I saw the dark arms of ancient trees looming amid the unlimited stretch of night. There was no shortage of silence here, and no dearth of mystery.
Polished wood. My home near the mountain was a good spot but I had to leave eventually to begin a new chapter in life. The tiny and dainty apartment on Madasalin Street (madasalin is Filipino for ‘prayerful’) was well appointed and quite modern. In the few months that I occupied this space, I kept every room dark and stayed indoors most of the time. I was going to be a first-time mother. There was a small veranda where I managed to keep a few potted plants alive. They looked so pretty against the red cobblestone tiles. I clearly remember how exquisite the mahogany cupboard looked but its spicy and woodsy smell often made me throw up.
Coming back home to wait. I returned to our family home to get much-needed support as I went through a physically challenging time. There was even an incident involving a flying cockroach—I fell flat on my very pregnant tummy as I tried to evade the creature. I learned how to enjoy watching afternoon gossip shows on TV and listening to cheesy radio dramas. At the end of this slow period, my sweet child arrived into my life and all the hues, the gifts from nature, the music, the world and its flowers, verses, and light became more radiant. I couldn’t have known then that I was about to learn how to bear the suffering that came with all that beauty.
That was the calm. When the storm arrived, I was living in a medium-sized apartment in a gated village called Heroes Hill. I had no idea that all of it would soon fall apart. In the beginning, I liked that there was a creek nearby where herons skimmed the water. I also remember waking up to the calls of strange birds in the morning. The bedroom window gave me and my toddler a view of that creek and the lush, old trees that lined the watercourse. It could have been perfect, but then my soul’s dark night came and there weren’t stars any longer. Even the way I felt about the rooster’s cawing changed from enthusiasm to dread. But this space that cradled me during my lowest moment also allowed me to discover my immense power. I learned forgiveness, courage, faith during this time. And this home, with all its darkness, was where my child started to gain awareness and that was such a powerful experience. Even though he marked the walls with both stick figures and pleas for his parents—he learned to beg us to stop fighting before he could write his ABC’s properly—it was still our home. He spent hours in his room creating toys and fashioning gifts for me, and I cooked for him the best meals and we had well-thought-out celebrations. It was just the two of us most of the time and that was, perhaps, a blessing.
Bed space. When I finally learned to not only embrace but to be grateful for that which I couldn’t change, the next step was to move on. And that I did. A friend offered a room, which could not hold all of what we carried, inside and out. But we made the most of it as we tried to do everything on the bed except take our showers and cook meals. Thankfully, it did not last long but in my friend’s house my son and I learned some good lessons, like: travel light.
Dead-end street. I found a unit at the end of a cul-de-sac called Judge Juan Luna. There was a receiving area, a space for sleeping, dining area, and kitchen—but there were neither doors nor walls between them. Three sisters ran the place: M, Z and J. M wanted to charge me an extra 500 pesos monthly because we had a dog. Z made me pay for the entire compound’s water bill. And J, the normal one, was always away. There was a grassy area in front of our house, about 15×15 metres, on which I planned to do my morning qigong. It never happened because steaming mounds of scat littered the square every morning. So I closed my eyes to imagine I was doing tai chi on a mountain or some other natural landscape, even when I was just moving around in our small, wall-less sala. Nature can also be found inside one’s head.
House of prayer. It truly felt like settling down when we moved to Bulacan Street. A graceful arch of pink bougainvillea flowers hanging over the front gate welcomed us one hot day in April. From the common yard, we’d walk through a 5-metre esquinita to reach our front door. This passageway was about two metres wide so there was enough room for potted plants on both sides. Apart from a hermaphrodite papaya tree and a kamias (bilimbi) tree that qualified as a fast fruiter, we also had oregano, neem, Malabar spinach, hoya, water spinach, aloe vera, spider plant, ZZ, mayana, and other ornamentals growing from pots. Inside, the air was humid and stale because of our unit’s unfortunate placement, sandwiched between other smaller apartments.
Yet this rundown house, however limited in terms of floor area, held years of laughter, love, and plenty of chanting, singing, and dancing. It was a bit late but in my forties, I learned that to stay in grace, it is important to sustain the good energy of our space.
Where the heart is. In the morning, I wake up in time to watch the sun climb over the new horizon. At night, I reflect: What a journey it’s been!
In the morning, I bask in the warm sun while doing qigong, my Eight Section Brocade, my Yang 24, my Eight Animal Frolics. At night, I sleep gently in the arms of my beloved.
In the morning, I read in a garden punctuated by desert roses, hibiscus, crown of thorns, asystasia. In the evening, the wind howls in the background of dreams.
In the morning, I light an incense and allow the smoke to carry my gratitude toward the heavens. And at last, tonight, I can look up at the black sky and see all the stars.