What We Saved

I would like to apologize in advance for the mess of this entry. Since the storms, there’s this ever-present conflict—on one hand, all instincts rebelled against any talk of the disaster (it was too difficult, too familiar, too inside-us-dammit); on the other, we’ve found there is very little else we could talk about. I am trying.

There’s a certain shame in me as I write this—survivor guilt, perhaps. On the 26th of September, Tropical Storm Ondoy (Ketsana) caught us unawares, and it was not yet midday when whole towns were submerged by bloated rivers and unceasing rain and one of the crappiest sewage systems this side of civilization.

No, I did not lose my house. Hardly anything got wet. Here in Paranaque, Constant Vigilance and a couple of rags, mops, and buckets staved off the storm. The flooding was minimal, and this is surprising—our house is lower than the road, and an elevated driveway fronts the main house. The most we had to contend with were the leaking ceilings. I was lucky, I realize that.

Here, we thought it was another storm. The same old spots in the ceilings leaked, after all.

Okay. Wait. I realize what I’m doing. I realize I’m setting up the drama, I realize I’m trying not to sound like an insensitive ass moaning about the things she did not lose, not really. I realize I’m trying to get you to side with me for a few minutes, to forgive that I would only talk about a humid room, and wrinkled books, right after me talking about how horrible it was, how heartbreaking for the rest of Manila. I was even planning to tell you that the day after the storm, I traversed eerily empty EDSA to get to Katipunan, because there were people I loved there, and their things were drenched. I was even about to tell you that I spent a couple of hours plagued by the humidity, and the leaky ceilings, completely oblivious to the extent of the damage Ondoy was wreaking all over my Manila, and to the people I loved—until, of course, I logged on to good-ol’-Twitter (because GMA and ABS were taking a long time getting with the program that day.)

I’ll cut the crap.

I was going to say that, dammit, the first things I lunged for were my books, and when I left my house, I made sure whatever storm would have a hard-ass time victimizing my books. These were my most important things, and that joke about What will you save in the flood, became oh-so-laughably real as I transferred all of my books to one free-standing shelf, and put a bed sheet over that, and put a plastic sheet on the ceiling over that—and I’d already seen how the pages were wrinkling, the covers were lifting, and it was all decidedly un-pretty. Let me tell you now that when I contacted as much people I could, the first things they told me were, “The books are safe,” not because I’m freaky about book-conditions, but because, I suspect, they were consoling themselves too—these were their most important things. And later, as we numbly surveyed the damage, when we recounted what had happened over bottles of beer, we hung our head and mumbled, “The books.”

There are many things I could not save. Physically separated from what I’d then hoped was a safe enough corner for my books, as I was drying out mattresses, and wiping down drenched paintings, and setting out art magazines to dry in front of an industrial electric fan, I was telling myself, There were many things I could not save—and incredibly selfish moments would seize me and I would want nothing more than to go back to Paranaque and Ziploc my books individually, never mind that I was muck-deep in so much destruction, never mind that when you turned the television on, anchors were yelling Apokalipsis!, never mind that a lot of people, so many friends, lost too many things.

But. I tell myself there are important things. There are things we insist on holding on to, to convince ourselves we’re human, we have memories, there is still this abstraction called sentimentality alive within us.

The other day, I made a list. Since during the wait for Typhoon Parma, my boyfriend and I packed essentials backpack and survivor gear—we were ready for shit to go down, okay?—I took out my notebook and wondered what books would fit in my backpack, what I’d choose to save out of the mountain that was cramming that one standing bookshelf back in Paranaque. The list was not as difficult as I’d feared—1, A Lover’s Discourse, by Roland Barthes; 2, New Selected Poems, by Mark Strand; 3, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. I won’t elaborate why these books are these books. The same way I can’t elaborate why I reached for my bookshelf first once I realized my ceiling was leaking, the same way I can’t explain why my mind wandered to my books while I was carrying a myriad of trinkets out in the sun to dry, while I tried to make a bed in an abandoned house. The same way I do not want to explain why my friends and I would tell each other, “The books are safe,” or why we feel this immense heartache for all that paper, all their stories, lost to the water.

2 thoughts on “What We Saved

  1. I get it. Or at least, I think I do. When I read a book — if it’s a good book — it becomes my friend while I’m reading it. Even the worst aspects of my life do not matter when I’m reading a good book. It’s my escape.

    So if these friends became threatened, I would do whatever I could to save them. I would feel like I owed them at least that.

    (This is @elizawhat/delirious19th, by the way.)

  2. Thank you. When I wrote this, I felt like I wasn’t able to say it the way it needed to be said — how to explain the enormity of the roles books played in one’s life? How to explain the threat? How to explain the flimsiness of a Ziploc bag? Again, thank you.

    (Yes, I recognized your avatar; I liked your haircut, :p)

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