The Allegory of the Trees

The Allegory of the Trees

It’s the grueling time of the year again where I need patience: immigration paperwork. Often, I meet the most undesirable people who don’t seem to be helpful in processing my permits. As it turns to be unbearable, I ask my self a question: what the hell am I doing here?


This morning, when that question popped in my mind, I happened to notice the unripe mango fruits of this tree standing outside my house. Trees are a metaphor to me. They remind me of the universal truths, like there will always be a time for flowers to bloom. Likewise, there will be a season for them to transform into fruits. Though at times they won’t — but there’ll be another time that they will. What is this mango tree doing here? No one knows. Maybe to ask what am I doing here is a question that’s not too fruitful to pursue. Or maybe, I should ponder on things like if I were to imagine that I were a tree, what fruits do I want to bear? I want to bear fruits of hope. So wherever I am planted, my existence is a gift to anyone around me. But then the pessimistic in me asked: what if the fruits of hope fall into the ground and later turns out to be of no use? I look at the tree again. The fruits may rot, but later the seeds they carry will turn into new trees. Or, whatever happens to the fruits the mother tree has given birth to, she remains to be a tree. No more, no less.


Poetry: Kapok

Poetry: Kapok

(In Bahasa Indonesia, Kapok can mean two things. First, it may refer to the Kapok tree. Second, it may mean deterrent; or that someone is not going to do it again. In Cebuano, the second meaning can be translated to tagam.)

The clouds in Lombok

are trapped in cocoons.

They wait for the time

Before they can bloom.


In a small village called

Sesait, I was told the trees

that imprison the clouds

are named kapok. “They

use it to soften your bedding,”

one of the farmers explained.

Ah, I know. So cotton, it is,

the innards of the pillow I

tucked under your head,

one night when you said

you’re spending the night

with me. So kapok is

the cushion that carried

your weight when I tossed

you into my bed of faded flowers

which breathed the fragrance

pulsating from your neck.

Now I remember, when I

buried my face into your silk

thighs; when you gasped for air —

your fingers whirled on my skin

like they were reading secrets

coded in braille. As I reached for

your face so I could tuck my lips

into yours  —

your hands pushed my head,

and you asked:

“How can you say that in Lombok,

the clouds bloom from cocoons?”

I said, there’ll come a time.

And they’ll bloom soon.

Maybe, before they could bloom,

I’d have to wait under

a hopeless sky.

So, I also know that apart from

Cottons, the word kapok

Could mean another thing

on the island of Java.

It could also refer

to a time where I’d tell myself:

This is the last time I’m doing this.

When I succumbed into

believing that you like

poetry whispered

in your wet ears,

you said not to expect.

Some cocoons give birth to

a plague of moths,

instead of butterflies,

or answered prayers.


And even as the kapok trees bear

flowers that resemble

beautiful clouds,

they’re not the exact

things we expect

they would become.

How Fat Shaming People Nearly Turned Me Anorexic

How Fat Shaming People Nearly Turned Me Anorexic

Since I was a kid, I had been called many things: baboy, taba, tabachoy, damulag, dambuhala, tambukikoy. These are Filipino words used to poke fun at fat people. But in 2012, I felt like I was the happiest person on earth. People no longer called me names. I’m finally able to fit on clothes at ready-to-wear shops. From 120 kilos, I went down to 85. My waistline shrunk from 44 to 34. I could borrow my brothers’ clothes. And I said goodbye to double X apparels! I’m size M! Boy, that was the best feeling ever!


The fat/body shamers


But just I thought there’s nothing to worry about, people started noticing the changes in my body — in a negative way. You have so many stretch marks, your body is sagging.  You need to do sports, your body seem to be as soft as jelly. I mean, hello, how would I lose weight if it weren’t for sports?

And there were still people whose first topic for every conversation would be: hey, you’ve gained weight haven’t you? Have you been eating a lot lately?

It’s these kind of questions that get on my nerves.

Why on earth do these people seem to talk like they own my body?

Of course, I always make an effort to keep my composure whenever I encounter these kind of people. But, whenever I’m alone in my room, I would take off my clothes and stand before the mirror. I see a very fat guy. I would stare at him like it were another person whom I hate. I called him names. Although in reality, that guy is me, a guy who’s fat no more.

My desire to lose weight went on. I would eat only small amounts, weighed myself each morning (or whenever I pass by a clinic or a pharmacy). I would swim everyday, and at night I would jog. Takut gemuk, the fear of gaining weight…or in the words of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association: anorexia nervosa.


My weight loss obsession


In 2015, my body weight reached 80 kilograms, the lightest I’ve ever had. My body mass index was at 21.7. I was negative three points away from being clinically underweight.

And I knew things were not going right. My body spoke to me. At night, I could not sleep well. The night breeze felt like it was nibbling the bones in my elbows. I could not sit for a long time; the bones in my buttocks felt like it was piercing my behind.

While I never consulted an expert to declare that I was flirting with anorexia nervosa, I knew that I was at the brim of this eating disorder. But not all people are as lucky as me. Anorexia has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness. It is estimated that 4% of anorexic individuals die from complications of the disease.


How I saved myself from anorexia


However, one thing I’ve learned in life is that people will always have things to say; and they’re not really aware of the consequences. We must recognise that not all people think of the consequences of the words they say. And it is not your problem. It is theirs. People think that it’s okay to say that you’ve gain weight, even if they have not actually weighed you. It does hurt, but hey, at least you know you’re aware that the words they say are do not represent reality. In cases like this, the only way to know whether you’re fat or not — is by actually stepping on that weighing scale because numbers do not lie.

Also, ultimately, the best person who should be responsible for your own body is no other than yourself.

As someone who has studied sociology for more than ten years, and having learned that our environment bears a huge impact on who we turn into, I realised that there is no use of spending my luxury of time with people who rub into my face that I’m fat. Because I am not. I have known that three years ago, when I stepped into that store to try on medium-sized clothes. I have defeated obesity. And there is no use to be with people who will do no good — but to push you into the pits of anorexia, a disease that I might have been suffering for all these years. Similarly, think of them like unnecessary weight, they do will need to go…

…because whatever people will have to say….there is only one thing that matters the most:I have been successful in battling obesity. I have shed that critical body weight that I have been carrying for more than 20 years, that bodyweight people used to poke fun of me. I am happy with this bodyweight. No matter what people say.


My current body weight is 82.6 kilos. I am 192 cm tall. That means my Body Mass Index is 22.5, which is normal, according to the World Health Organisation.

So, am I thin or am I fat?

I do think that is not a question.

That shouldn’t be.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Watson



Poetry: Again (0:52)

Poetry: Again (0:52)

At the crack of dawn,

your name is what

the sea hears from

my whispers. I say

it again, and again.

Meaning, to lose it,

it would need repetition.

Like, the countless nights

of not wanting to rise;

I persist on hoping

from the moment

your name is said

you’d mean less

with every breath.

Perhaps, it’s the same

reason: why, seldom do I

want to see the sun.

It’s the only thing I have

close to hope

of one day, I wish,

I no longer want you,

nor, the

the memories

tied to your name,

which to the sea

I repeatedly say




There’s Another Kind of Poverty That Demands Our Attention

There’s Another Kind of Poverty That Demands Our Attention

Our common definition of poverty is when people do not meet their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, that’s when we start calling them poor. An estimated 896 million people or 12.7 of the world’s population fall under that definition, according to the World Bank. We have cut the poverty rate into half between 1990 and 2015. That’s something we should celebrate, something that should encourage us to strengthen our fight against global poverty.

But there is another form of poverty that we rarely talk about. There is no statistics that could tell how prevalent it is, but what I think is that it affects many of us.


Our Poverty of Words

In Indonesia, when one person declares that he’s depressed, it is easy for us to dismiss their state as something of less importance. We think that modern words like galau or baper is the best word to describe what they’re going through.

Galau, by definition, means kacau tidak keruan (pikiran). Many times, I have been told to have gone through kegalauan. Galau, because I don’t look the positive things in life. Galau, because I dwell on painful memories. Galau, because I refuse to move on.

I am impressed by how easy for many people to diagnose what I’m feeling, and I wonder what body of knowledge has turned them into experts in giving unsolicited advice to people suffering from kegalauan.

But of course, as many of you who have experienced kegalauan, galau is not as easy as imagined. In societies where our priority is to fulfil our material needs, there are things that are placed at the sidelines, such as depression, a condition often equated to galau.


My Struggle With Depression

I have been sporadically battling with depression since 2008, the beginning my tumultuous journey with life. Between that that year and 2015, I lost a college friend and a mentor, a colleague, an aunt, and encountered hundreds of families grieving for their loved ones washed away by natural calamities in Southern Philippines. The events happened at short intervals, just right after I thought I have recovered from each of them. In 2012, a month after I got the news that I was awarded a scholarship for a postgraduate study, I was informed by my employer that I have been accused of plagiarising a news report, an act that I denied but somehow people like spreading rumours that plagiarism became an inside joke among people I used to consider as friends. They weren’t.

Sure, I know that while the glass is half-empty, it is also half-full. I tried to look at the positive things of every problem, but depression is a selfish companion that thinks only for himself. There would be mornings where mustering the will to get up is a challenging task. Meeting people was a difficult task. You did not want to meet and talk with people. Your subconscious self refuses to talk. You lose vigour. You wish there wouldn’t be tomorrow so there’s no need to wake up next day.

In developing countries, treating depression does not have the same footing with treating common illnesses. It is understandable. After all, I do not expect much for people to see doctors when they feel they’re suffering from depression (as it may be costly). But, what’s not acceptable is when we try to silence depression, as if it weren’t there.

Depression is “the secret we share,” says American writer Andrew Solomon in his TED Talk. The thing keeping secrets is that it makes understanding even more difficult. Solomon discussed in his speech that people tend to confuse depression, grief, and sadness.

“Grief is explicitly reactive. If you have a loss and you feel incredibly unhappy, and then, six months later, you are deeply sad, but you’re functioning a little better, it’s probably grief, and it will probably ultimately resolve itself in some measure. If you experience a catastrophic loss, and you feel terrible, and six months later you can barely function at all, then it’s probably a depression that was triggered by the catastrophic circumstances.” — Andrew Solomon

Solomon went on to expound on the current state of depression treatment in the world, which he described as appalling. “They’re not very effective. They’re extremely costly. They come with innumerable side effects. They’re a disaster.”

He did not mean that people suffering from depression should not go see a specialist. “But I am so grateful that I live now and not 50 years ago, when there would have been almost nothing to be done.”

Such is true, and what we can also do is to treat depression by exploring such state through language.


‘Poverty’ and Poetry

In 2002, a research published for National Poetry Day said that England’s National Health Service could save nearly £200,000 a year using poems to help people with depression. The report based on 196 people with psychological problems found that 75% found writing poems as an emotional release. Two thirds found reading or listening to poetry helped them be able to relax and feel calm.

Historically, artists have conveyed depression through metaphors. Emily Dickson described it like “a Funeral, in my Brain.”  Bei Dao saw everything as “an endless beginning” and hope “hedged with doubt.”

But fast forward to the present, depression is simplified into galau.

Unlike economic poverty which is an important discourse globally, we do not talk about poverty of words. We might have different international lending institutions like the World Bank, but we do not have Word Bank, a multi-lateral organisation that aims to battle our word famine. That doesn’t mean, however, there is nothing we can do.

In the summer of 2014, I found myself applying for a literary fellowship, where I met some of the Philippines award-winning writers who gave me a deeper understanding of poetry.

For one week, we would listen to lectures, and in the afternoon, the works we submitted before the workshop would be critiqued by these esteemed writers.

The fellows came from different backgrounds. But what was strikingly common was that all of us were facing battles. We were needing a weapon, so when we come back to our normal lives, would have the ability to navigate the complexities of life.

The task of poetry, according to Filipino poet Mikael Co, is to never run out of words. Its task is to let those who battle the spectre of despair become victorious, in an age where people suffering deep inside continue to find the words that best describe their state of mind.

If some of you happen to be in the same predicament as mine, I invite you to enter the world of poetry, and discover what creative language can do for you, in dire situations where you think there is no more reason for you to live.

Because there is. And to support what I believe, let me leave you a poetry that I continue to read, especially when depression creeps.



Also All (in answer to Bei Dao’s “All”)

Not all trees are felled by storms.

Not every seed finds barren soil.

Not all the wings of dream are broken,

nor is all affection doomed

to wither in a desolate heart.

No, not all is as you say.

Not all flames consume themselves,

shedding no ling on other lives.

Not all starts announce the night

and never dawn. Not every song

will drift past every ear and heart.

No, not all is as you say.

Not every cry for help is silenced,

nor every loss beyond recall.

Not every chasm spells disaster.

Not only the weak will be brought to their knees,

nor every soul be trodden under.

It won’t all end in tears and blood.

Today is heavy with tomorrow—

the future was planted yesterday.

Hope is a burden all of us shoulder

though we might stumble under the load.



Photo courtesy of János Csongor Kerekes