The female roots of my family tree

This morning, I woke up at my mom’s house. She and I spent an evening out together yesterday — dinner, coffee, a short lecture about the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and then the BNC’s ballet performance of Don Quixote at Place-des-Arts. It was our way of celebrating Mother’s Day (which is actually today here in Canada). With the memories of the previous evening’s performance running through my head, the first thing I experienced this morning as I reflected was a sense of pride.

We’re not Cuban or any other kind of Latin American by any means, but we share the same Iberian passion, heart, and exuberance that the dancers of the BNC displayed last night, and that honestly all Hispanic people display on a daily basis. But seeing it on stage in all the sumptuous finery of classical ballet was a pivotal moment for me, I think. From the music featuring tambourines and castanets and the distinct rhythms of Spanish dances right up to the sheer joy and love of life expressed in the movements of the dancers, Don Quixote put me in touch with a side of my heritage that I’ve never really felt connected to before.

My Spanish heritage is something I don’t often consider — I have always been first and foremost a Canadian, even before I became a citizen, and of course Filipino culture reigned supreme at home — but lately it’s been creeping to the foreground of my thoughts. I’ve been thinking a lot more about my identity, which is probably why I’ve finally started poking into the Spanish and Spanish-influenced chapters of my family history. And, as it turns out, much of what links me to these roots comes from the women of my family.

Although the hot Iberian blood runs on both sides, I know more about my mother’s side of the family than my father’s. The primary factor playing into this imbalance of knowledge is that my mother’s family were all in Canada when I was growing up, including my maternal grandmother who was full to bursting of family history. By marriage she was a Gomez but by birth she was a Garcia, a direct descendant of the Mercado-Alonso union that would become known as the Rizal family, and so the family history is extremely well documented and archived. They were blessed with an abundance of daughters but only two sons, though they’re more well-known of course for the legacy of José Rizal than they are for anything their daughters did.

But that doesn’t mean any of them, or any of the ladies to follow, led boring and insignificant lives. Thanks to my maternal grandmother, whom we referred to as “Lola” in our family, my earliest recollections include stories of the great-grand-women of the family: women whose most formative and defining moments were in harrowing experiences such as world wars and civil uproar; women who, for their time, experienced the privileges of education, personal wealth, and careers — things that we today believe are normal components of the everyday life of a modern woman, but back then were considered to be firmly in the domain of menfolk; women who, in short, have created for my sisters and me an unbroken legacy of strength, grit, and resilience tempered by love, kindness, and faith.

Sometimes it’s hard to live up to that kind of family history. Here I am at twenty-six and I feel like I’m in a pretty good place in my life; at any rate, I’m more comfortable with myself and more loving and accepting of who I am now than I ever have been. But although I’ve been down the foundations of my adult life for the last few years when I compare myself to the women of my family tree when they were my age, I always feel like I’m found left for wanting in their presence. But then I remember that you can’t compare your chapter one to someone else’s chapter twenty — and the fact of the matter is, my world is very different from the worlds of these ladies, so of course it makes sense that my story is being written at a markedly different pace.

I often wonder (and honestly, worry) if I’ll ever be able to be as strong, poised, gracious, confident, and beautiful as the women of my family before me. Even when I compare myself to my sisters I find myself in a brief panic over the thought that I’ll never be anything remotely like them.

There’s a quote that I’ve seen everywhere on social media today and I’ve been pondering on it while I’ve been preparing to write this, and by putting those thoughts alongside my insecurities in the face of my feminine legacy, I’ve realized something important: it doesn’t matter if my experiences at age twenty-six aren’t quite as earth-shattering and life-changing as those of the women before me, or that I’m nowhere near as well-established in my life and my career as they were at this age.

What truly matters is that the iron-clad strength of their souls that allowed them stand upright in their convictions and the passion that burned in their hearts to fuel their lives was passed on to me, along with many examples of what one may accomplish if one looks life straight in the the eye and never backs down. It doesn’t matter how I do it myself, just that I harness that strength and passion in my own bones and heart, and live life to the fullest as they did…in the best way I know how. That is how I might live up this legacy and embrace this heritage of mine.

And so:

“Here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.” 

The 15-minute book club, #3: The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock:

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
Sabine’s Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Continues
T
he Golden Mean:   In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Concludes

 

Last night I had a rare opportunity to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

And I squandered it on the rediscovery of a book.

Though I’ve always been a scribbler, once upon a time I was also a reasonably talented visual artist who dabbled extensively in creating artwork in mixed media, black-and-white film photography, and digital manipulation. Writing and visual art collaborated frequently in my adolescent life, but one day they collided headlong with curiosity and a need for a psychological thrill when I first discovered Griffin and Sabine.

Written, illustrated, and constructed by Nick Bantock, this trilogy is comprised of the unusual correspondence between the broodingly lonely London artist Griffin Moss and the vivaciously mysterious Sabine Strohem, an artist from a chain of tiny islands in the South Pacific. Letters, postcards, and notecards – all exquisitely illustrated and handwritten, some in made-to-match envelopes that you can actually open and rifle through – document this mind-bending tale.

Part love story and part psychological thriller, Griffin and Sabine takes storytelling to another level by telling a story that requires its reader to do more than just turn to the next page. There’s a certain excitement to looking through the private correspondences of other people, and although I’d outgrown trying to break into my sister’s diary by my late teens the act of reading somebody else’s letters was still appealing. And it’s not just reading these intimate pieces of mail: each is a self-contained work of art that simply demands closer scrutiny from the reader, which in turns brings about a deeper appreciation for the concept and plot as well as a greater emotional investment in its outcome.

One of the reasons why I started “The 15-minute Book Club” section of this blog is to discuss the literature that inspired my own creative processes, changed or enhanced my perception, or otherwise impacted my life in a moving and profound fashion. Since closing the final book of the trilogy late last night I’ve been reflecting on what exactly this book means to me, I realized that Griffin and Sabine trilogy did all of these things for me.

As an artistic adolescent, upon the first reading of Griffin and Sabine I learned that art does not have to be perfect or conventional to be beautiful and meaningful: as long as it makes us think critically and opens our minds to a broader understanding of the world then art, to paraphrase Picasso, will always somehow enable us through is lies to comprehend the greater truths. It’s because of Griffin and Sabine that while I might not like or prefer certain kinds of art, I’m still able to appreciate them. For example, it might be hard to believe but you have to trust me when I say that Bantock’s image of a goldfish shattering a wineglass helped me get past my dislike of Warhol just enough to appreciate what a can of Campbell’s did for modern art.

Nick Bantock’s eccentric and raw approach to storytelling in the Griffin and Sabine books influenced my own writing style as well when I first read it in my late teens. Up until this point, my early attempts at writing always crashed and burned, ground to a screeching halt, or otherwise simply stopped because I was constantly getting bogged down in revealing everything all at once in desperate attempts to give my stories some kind of foundation. What Bantock’s style revealed was that the foundations of characters are just the back story – that the present story is what truly matters, and that a writer’s job is to allow the characters to tell the present story instead of trying to take over the main narrative by establishing off the bat what’s already happened to them. Reading the story of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem in literal bits and pieces taught me, as both a writer and a reader, to be patient with characters and let them reveal what they will, when they will.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that as far as my actual letter writing is concerned, anyone who’s ever received a letter or card from me will tell you that it’s always meticulously handwritten (and, in the case of the latter, usually handmade), includes hand-drawn illustrations and calligraphy-style quotes, and comes from the heart. While other books most certainly did contribute to my writing style regarding personal correspondence (not to mention my father’s insistence that we write often to our paternal grandmother in the Philippines), Griffin and Sabine definitely taught me a considerable amount about how to turn letter-writing into a true art.

Finally, this unconventional love story between these two artistic souls first came into my life at the end of an overseas long-distance relationship. While the letter-based narrative struck a few raw nerves at the time (this was before international texting was a “thing,” let alone me having my own cellphone, so snail mail was actually a big part of this first relationship) this latest reading of Griffin and Sabine reminded me that deep, intimate connections can and will come up in all kinds of sudden and unexpected ways, and that being open to these kinds of surprises leaves you open to experiencing the rest of life to its fullest.

The best love stories are all different, but they all share a common thread of relentlessly pursuing the most abstract concepts and sorting through the most befuddling emotions, and finding out who you really are in the process. Opening yourself up to another person and to the world, and then reflecting upon those experiences when you’re alone, is how you come into the most complete form of self-understanding and self-awareness. While this might not really be what these books are really about, this is how they spoke to me last night and at this point in my life that’s the main reason why I treasure this story.

So maybe in the end I didn’t totally squander a few preciously rare extra hours of sleep by diving back into the strangely beautiful world of Griffin and Sabine, and maybe in the end I wasn’t just curling up alone in bed with a book. I was diving back into the most confusing, lovely, engrossing, and riveting archive of a relationship that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and enjoying every unsettlingly bizarre and lovely morsel of it as I discovered more about myself through the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem.