Re/Collect is an ongoing writing project exploring the experience of a Filipino encountering the objects from the Philippine Collection. On one hand, it is a revisiting of a difficult moment in my country’s history when Filipinos put on display as living ethnographic exhibits in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. On the other hand, it is a meditation on the nature of cultural identity, on the role objects play in collective memory, and on the challenges of reckoning with history.
Here is an excerpt from this project inspired by Capiz shells found in the Philippine Collection.
What is one to do with an object? To hold and weigh. To throw and measure. To bore a hole into the ground with. To hold the hair. To press against the table a sheaf of papers. To pry a fruit open. To strum the fingers against. To press against the lip. To sleep under. To be surrounded by. To put in a pocket. To lift against the light.
In my father’s old house in Danao, the windows are made shells. Capiz, their called, translucent and powdery, made from shells found in the shore, harvested, collected and cut into 5x5 inch squares, polished, and then assembled one beside each other, piece by piece, fit into wooden frames to form a window. Sea glass I liked to call it. Glass that was made to capture the shimmer of a wave.
In the summers growing up, my brother and I would visit the old house in Danao and we would love it there. While my father was off to the clinic looking at patients, and my mother was in the kitchen talking to my aunts, my brother and I would sit in the living room floor and play. He loved the apitong floors because they were cool to the touch. Wood that would last for centuries my father liked to say: termite proof, weather resistant. The kind that came from trees that reached into the sky until one couldn’t even see the top branches.
I loved the photographs, the pictures of grandmothers and grandfathers that hung on the walls with the weary and watchful black and white gaze of ancestors looking down on their shameless descendants. Here was the father of my father whom I never met. There was the mother of my grandmother who looked like my brother in a dress. There was my father when he was young and a new doctor. There was my uncle in the dark suit of priests when he still had hair. The future for my brother and I was yet to be lived but very early on, here, it was already quite paved.
We both loved the windows, especially in the afternoons when they shielded the house from the unrelenting summer sun. Because they were translucent, the house didn’t get the direct glare of the sun’s stare and instead we were bathed in what to me was a kind of liquid light. Light of water that dispersed throughout the house. We were not burned, we glowed. And it seemed as if we had just stepped in, my brother and I, in the middle of a sepia photograph. I was four, he was ten, but we were already in the past. We had moved across time. Time had seeped into our skin. If we would sit still, there was a chance we would never age.
Is a window to look out from or to look inside? A children’s puzzle. When the windows were opened, we knew it was already four. Soon, it would be time to go home.
Lawrence Ypil is the author of The Highest Hiding Place: Poems (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2009). He holds an MFA in Poetry from Washington University in St. Louis on a Fulbright Scholarship and is now taking an MFA in the Nonfiction Writing Program in the University of Iowa.