OpinionBack to the Future

Back to the Future

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The following is a modified version of a speech I gave to the Honors Day convocation of Silliman University Junior High School last October 11 at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium.

 

When I got the call last week with the invitation to speak before you today for your Honors Day, I was actually teaching a three-hour class on Asian Literature, and was wondering if I was going to lose my voice to a bad spell of coughing that has been going around in Dumaguete for some time. The invitation proved to be a welcome distraction. Over the phone, I did not hesitate to say yes to the invitation—this was my high school after all, and you do not say no to your old high school.

But at the back of my head, a question lingered: Why me? What was it about me that made my old school think I was worthy to become Honors Day speaker? There are certain parameters, I think, that exist when invitations like this are sorted out: the ability to inspire, for example. Perhaps also being articulate. And certainly there’s the measure of accomplishments. I have been convocation speaker before, many times in fact, but this one proved particularly anxiety-inducing: I wanted to say just the right thing for the current students of my old high school. The burden felt immense.

People generally know me as a writer, someone who has gained considerable attention and rewards for being a writer, someone who has actually published books, and whenever I am asked what it is that I do, I always mention being a writer first and a teacher second. The writing bit is my chosen vocation. So I quickly deduced this was the impetus for the invitation: they wanted the award-winning writer to be your speaker today, and hopefully I can be articulate enough to dole out a speech, and hopefully said speech could contain some inspiring thoughts around the theme of “embracing the future as God’s gift,” which is the theme given to me to expound on—the same theme of the Founders Day we recently celebrated in Silliman last August.

But what does a writer know of futures that are supposed to be “divine gifts that need embracing” in our present? To be honest, nothing. Writers are mostly not in the business to be prophets. What we do is write to tell hopefully immersive stories—although I can also argue that a great number of writers do serve the function of futurists. So many science fictionists, for example, have mapped out compelling future worlds in their stories—sometimes utopic, and sometimes dystopic—and often these visions of the future do trickle down to become our eventual reality. Then there are people like Jose Rizal who use literary prophecy for nationalist purposes. In his essay, “The Philippines a Century Hence,” Rizal mapped out the political fate of the Philippines within a hundred years since his own lifetime. All but two of his predictions have come to pass.

I write science fiction, too. But I am not a futurist as far as I know about the fiction that I do write. I mostly write fantasy stories set in some imaginary version of the Philippines when Spanish colonization began to take hold. I mostly write children’s stories about kids finding some sort of inner strength to battle the challenges they face—like the fear of the unknown, or the disability they bear. I mostly write realist fiction about being queer in a world that’s changing fast. I mostly write about my mother. So, in my capacity as a writer speaking before you right now, what do I know instances of embracing the future as divine gifts? What does it even mean?

For some reason, and probably because I am an avid movie lover who also happens to teach film in college, this theme made me think of the 1985 movie Back to the Future. If you know your movies, this is the Michael J. Fox sci-fi romp where he is transported back in time via a car that has been rigged to become a time machine, where he has to correct certain trajectories in his parents’ past as high school teenagers just so they would in fact meet, marry, and have him and his siblings as children. Because if he doesn’t correct the anomalies of fate, he and his siblings would then cease to exist. That’s the ultimate fantasy, isn’t it? To be able to go back in time, and serve as the corrective for a viable future to happen?

I was mulling about this movie—and thinking about what I needed to say to you today—and I turned to my partner Renz to ask him what I could possibly talk about that has something to do with the future, and embracing what’s to come. His answer proved helpful. He told me: “If you could, in fact, go back in time, what could you possibly tell your sixteen-year-old self? Or possibly even your thirteen-year-old self?” That made me think. How can I “Back to the Future” this narrative? Being able to give specific advice from a life yet to unfurl would be a talisman for the younger me.

Now, I have to say I can no longer quite recall what I was like when I was thirteen. That was way back in 1989-1990, practically ancient history, and the world was very different then. The Gulf War occupied our thoughts and it was broadcast live all over CNN to our living rooms—which was something to behold because Dumaguete finally had cable television! We went crazy over Ghost and Pretty Woman and Home Alone, and we were grooving to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” and Madonna’s “Vogue.” I was thin and dark, but already quite imaginative—and thirteen was the age I began thinking of myself as a writer. What can I tell that boy which I could impart as a kind of wisdom from the future all of you here can also mull about?

It turns out, there are five specific things I might want to tell thirteen-year-old or sixteen-year-old me, culled from the future he will eventually meet. To start off, I would tell my younger self to listen to his instincts, and that there is such a thing as gut feel. This means: to recognize the signs, and to act accordingly. Granted, this is a life skill that can only be honed through experience—when you meet new situations, for example, and when you meet new people, and you take your experience with them as lessons with which you can navigate similar signposts in the future. But instinct sometimes take on an almost supernatural ability for me—the ability to recognize deceit, for example, from a smiling and friendly face; the ability to discern what’s hidden from you; the ability to smell bullshit.

I sometimes call this prescience. When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a classmate that was the perfect combination of Tracey Flick from Election and Regina George from Mean Girls—a driven girl full of academic ambitions who sometimes was capable of small cruelties. It just so happened that I had a monobrow in high school, and was quite unaware that for certain circles this was a cosmetic no-no. One school night, after I was done doing my homework and was preparing to go to bed, a voice from the back of my head stopped in my tracks, and told me: “Pluck the excess hair between your eyes.”

Without question, I obeyed that voice. And the next day, I went to school for the first time without a monobrow. That morning, while waiting for our homeroom to open, I saw Tracey Flick/Regina George coming towards me, dragging another classmate by the hand behind her. She stopped short in front of me, and without looking at me, pointed at my glabella and told our classmate: “This is what I am talking about, a mono—” But she stopped, and became quiet, because I no longer had a monobrow! I escaped an instance of ridicule! And all because I obeyed the voice from the night before. It is a voice that regularly whispers from the depths of my spirit that tell me to watch out for certain things, and to obey my gut instincts about certain people that I will meet. In my life, this gut instincts has been mostly right.

The second thing I would tell my younger self is to listen to his happiness, and to not be a follower. It is difficult to not follow the crowd, especially if you have an unformed self. I had no idea what I wanted to be after high school. In my younger years, I had some vague notions about wanting to become a doctor—because being a doctor was society’s perfect ideal of a professional. Never mind that in high school, I was most happy when I was creating stories, and putting them down to paper. When it came to enrollment in college, nursing was in vogue, and almost a third of everyone I knew in my high school class trooped to Roble Hall here in Silliman to enroll in that course. I followed the crowd, and got myself a Nursing prospectus. [I almost became a nurse!]

But another third of my high school batch also went to Hibbard Hall to enroll in the newest professional craze at that time, Physical Therapy, with its promise of lucrative employment abroad. Again, I followed where everyone went—and finally decided to enroll with the pioneering batch of PT students at Silliman. It felt like the most responsible thing to do, never mind that it was not my dream. And never mind that I would often go out of the PT prospectus and have myself enrolled in extra English and Creative Writing classes, just to give myself a spark of the creative life I wanted to have while I was following the dictates of my own PT course.

Needless to say, I was not happy. I endured three years of Physical Therapy, knowing full well that this profession was not me. Picture me in my third year in PT, having to go to my first hospital assignation as a student health care giver, and given the simple task of attending to a real patient and taking down their vital signs—their pulse, their breathing, and their blood pressure. Picture me wearing my white smock, with my stethoscope and my sphygmomanometer.

My patient was a middle-aged woman of considerable weight who was not the picture of a welcoming human being at all. She looked at me crossly, and I knew she was looking straight at me as an impostor in her midst. I hurried to take note of her breathing—but I could not find her pulse! So I pretended to just “use” my blood pressure apparatus, and came up with invented numbers—and then hurried outside her room, where I found myself staring down the corridor at SUMC for a long, long time, feeling out of my depth. And I found myself thinking: “Is this what the rest of my life is going to be all about?” And the immediate answer that came to me was a resounding no. The very next semester, I shifted to mass communication—but I eventually would become an English teacher, and a writer.

The third thing I would tell my younger self is to listen to the sound of deadlines. This one I mean to keep short and sweet. You may be the most talented person you know—the best writer, the best artist, the best of whatever it is that you do—but when you cannot keep to your deadlines, all would be useless. Certainly, people will admire you for your brilliance, but nobody will hire you. This is a lesson I learned early in my career as a writer—and something that I strive to keep, because having a sound work ethic is a measure of success like no other.

But having said that about the necessity of the work ethic, I would also offer a rejoinder: the fourth thing I would tell my younger self is to listen to his life’s purpose—because his work is not him. Your work is not you. It is easy to get lost in the grind of work especially when it means the benefit of great material returns—a new car, a new house, all those perks of being able to travel. It is easy to fall prey to overextending ourselves in our work, because we think that work is all, and without us, our workplace might not be at its optimum. This is simply untrue. Everyone is replaceable. Your work place will not miss you when you are gone.

When I obtained my MA in Creative Writing in 2012, I was made the founding coordinator of the new Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center at Silliman, and I oversaw a sudden rise in enrollment in creative writing. I took that as a chance to pour myself into work, and worked hard I did for the next ten years straight without any breaks, without any sabbaticals, overextending myself with overloads, often taking away from my personal time just to work and work and work. I worked so much that I was not even writing anymore. When the pandemic came and added more stress in terms of Zoom classes and other alien features that were stopgaps to the new difficulties, I was primed for a burnout. When I caught COVID in December 2020, I broke down physically and mentally—and I quit teaching for the next two years. And guess what? The department simply hired other people to teach my classes. Replaceable. This became one of the greatest lessons in my life. Today, I work to live, but I do not live to work.

Enduring COVID in a time before any vaccine was available was bad enough. But what ultimately dismantled me was how the deadly but often silent tentacles of the pandemic made underlying neurodivergence, semi-dormant through the years, suddenly rise to the fore. I badly needed help because I was broken, and I was eventually persuaded to seek psychotherapy. I was finally diagnosed with adult ADHD—which made everything in my life thus far make so much sense. The only thing that saved me besides psychotherapy was the purpose I came to realize was my life: in my darkest moments, I wrote and wrote. And because of that, I found myself wanting, and willing myself, to live.

But I also learned something else about my diagnosis. Thus, this is the fifth thing I would tell my younger self: to listen to his innermost self and find strength in that—because his brain chemistry is not him. Yesterday [October 10], we celebrated World Mental Health Day, and this is an important point to make because the pandemic saw a huge spike in mental health cases. Before I was diagnosed, I was already aware that I exhibited certain frailties that made me look down on myself, that harbored so much guilt. I always forget things, and it’s also very easy to get distracted. I get overwhelmed and when I do, I tend to disappear. I often cannot summon the slightest motivation to finish the simplest of tasks—not even the threat of repercussions. I only get excited with the new, and find it very hard to carry on with what I’ve already done before. Validation from others is essential, not for vanity’s sake, but as a replacement for what my brain is incapable of manufacturing: self-validation. I cannot say no, and I am incapable of delegation. And I am a people-pleaser, often to my own detriment. All these make me feel like I am a terrible human being.

And then I was diagnosed with adult ADHD, and it made me see that all that I am [see above] are actually symptoms of a common neurodivergent condition. But I also learned this: they are symptoms, but they are also not me. They are just flukes of brain chemistry. This is a lesson that took some time to sink in. But I was freed from that old guilt I used to feel, and I was suddenly empowered to face my condition, and devise creative ways with which to function around my dopamine-deprived brain. Thus, if I could, I will tell my younger self to seek help and therapy. I have become an advocate for this, because I genuinely want to help end the stigma around mental health in our society.

I am not exactly sure about this, but I believe that I am the first person from my batch, the Class of 1993, who has been invited to become speaker for our old high school’s annual Honors Day convocation. This year also happens to be our 30th reunioning year, so in honor of all my high school classmates, I have opted to wear this red letter jacket they issued for all of us: it feels cool, it wears well, and it looks like it’s something straight out of Riverdale or Glee.

But it is also highly symbolic of perhaps the most formative years in my life—the four years I spent roaming the halls of Silliman University High School, and gradually learning who I was and was meant to be from all that I encountered: the teachers who taught me, what they had to teach me academically, and what I did in the realm of the extracurricular—all things I didn’t know had shaped my life considerably.

This jacket is also in honor of one of my high school best friends, to whom I dedicate this speech.

Her name was Jacqueline Piñero-Torres, and she was our Class Valedictorian. She was the most brilliant among us, and also the kindest and most understanding. Among other things, she allowed us to copy her mathematics homework right before the school bell rang. In our adulthood, she became an accountant rising up the ranks, working for Silliman University’s Business and Finance Office. And she was also the mother to brilliant children, including Jev, who is my godson and who is very much her spawn.

But she died very young. And it was devastating.

I think of her now because her future was indeed cut short—and the very promise of her feels unfulfilled. Sayang. What else could she have accomplished if she had lived?

And that made me think: all our futures are a precarious promise. And every day we get to live that future is indeed a gift, because each day is one more chance to live out our fullest potential, to realize our purpose, to become the ideal human beings we always dreamed we could be.

But it is also so easily cut short, like in the case of my dearest friend Jacqueline, because we really do not know when the end comes for us. The future is a blessing, and our ability to live it through is a gift.

I wish we could live each day with sharp instincts. And I wish we could live each day with a direction towards our happiness. And I wish we live each day respecting our responsibilities and deadlines, but also live each day knowing how to balance our lives beyond work. And finally, I wish we could live each day knowing the source of your frailties, and acknowledging they can be managed because these frailties are not you.

These are signposts from a future life I’d love very much to tell my thirteen-year-old self.

They all mean one thing: to live fully.

That’s the best gift we can give ourselves, and the surest way to embrace a happy future.

________________________________

Author’s email: [email protected]

 

 

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