Staying Alive (excerpt)

Nonfiction by | January 13, 2019

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 all-knowing 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.

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.

…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.

Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz teaches creative writing in the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She is currently the treasurer of the Davao Writers Guild.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.