Showing posts from October, 2020

Lizards kiss the ground to pray

When we were children, my mother would tell us to be careful with the house lizards that we saw at home. They were good creatures, she would say, and at six in the evening they would come down from heaven to humbly kiss the ground and pray to God.

I heard this story more than once because it was told to me and my older brother, and it would be told to the brother that came after me and then to the sister that came after all of us. The house lizard, with its fleshy body and skin so thin you could see its bones and pulsing organs; the house lizard, with its self-amputating, regenerating, tail; the house lizard, the holiest of God's animals, so good they have a place in heaven.

When I was younger, I would often worry, "Does God want me to also kiss the ground at six o'clock to show my love?" Then, instead of shamefully saying "Yuck," I would counter, "But God made it easy for the lizards. Their head is so close to the ground." And so for a time, the lizard was a reminder of what this guilty Catholic school girl would not do for God--and yet it was also a symbol of the long list of things I was grateful others would do so I wouldn't have to.

I could never touch a lizard--I imagine the sensation to be like holding a writhing strip of detached skin--but growing up I did keep more than a few lizard eggs we found all over the house. I watched a couple of them hatch into healthy baby lizards, but I also saw many premature hatchlings crawl out of slimy, bloody cracked eggs that were accidentally dropped.

I was sorry every time I saw a lizard, especially one too young to come out of its egg, die. I was even more sorry if I had caused it, though accidentally, like when I squished one with a door or forgot to check if one was trapped in flypaper. It felt like I had deprived God of yet another worshipper--one of, if not the, best. 

When I was a little bit older, I read about nocturnal animals and how lizards crawl out after sunset to eat insects. I tried to connect this with what I had been told as a child, thinking, "So they wake up, kiss the ground in prayer, and then go eat." But also, "Can they be any more good? They kiss the ground, they pray, and they eat mosquitoes!"

(And also, my eternal conundrum: Are animals really good if they kill other animals?)

Now I know with the certainty of an adult that my mother's story is just that, a story. And yet, when I saw a lizard trapped in flypaper fairly recently, I could have sworn God asked me to save it. Of course, later, when I was in my fourth hour of gently prying another lizard finger off the flypaper glue that a quick Internet search told me to wet with baby oil, I wondered if I had heard wrong and my messianic complex was again making me interfere with the natural order of things. 

I would like to believe the lizard heard me, though, when I begged it, over and over again, to stop writhing and not drop its tail or else I might make the sorry mistake of killing it as I recoil in disgust.

When finally it was free, it stood looking at me for a moment, and then quickly crawled off into the sunrise. I saw it again a few days later--I recognized it because there were still smudges of golden glue on its skin. I am not sure if I saved it, really, because I left it a bit sticky, but at least I know I gave it extra time (to kiss the ground and pray to God).

I am remembering all these tonight because the past week, there has been a baby lizard, already regrowing a tail, crawling on my bedroom floor from six o'clock onwards. It has kept me from sweeping the floor or using the vacuum cleaner, because, yes, I still do not want to deprive God of yet another worshipper, but also, having already spent five hours of my lifetime hunched over the kitchen sink, painstakingly removing a reptile with twenty fingers I could barely see and easily break with the smallest wrong move from a glue so sticky it is a trap, I do not want to have to save another one.

Now I think I am being terrorized by this baby lizard as much as I am terrorizing myself with stories I have been told and stories I have been telling. I mean, I know better, but there's the lizard, and I can't clean my room for days now because it's praying before eating. 

Bon appetit. Pray for me.

What Agapito Flores gave to me

Fluorescence, like some other names for the phenomena of light, is one of my favorite words. I love that it sounds like the Spanish word for flower and it brings to mind an image of light in full bloom. "Which we perceive with our sense of sight," I would add when I was a child as a sort of fun mnemonic, tickled by my own wit.

Like many from my generation, I grew up being taught about Filipino inventions. There was Agapito Flores and the moon buggy and, strangely, of all things, the rubber toilet plunger. 

In Grade 5, a teacher called on me to answer what I felt was a very difficult question. Which of the following Filipino inventions, she asked, proved that Filipinos were a technologically advanced people? The fluorescent light, the moon buggy, the toilet plunger, the first two, or all of the above?

How was I to know that in my teacher's opinion the understanding of modern plumbing and the application of suction and pressure did not constitute being technologically advanced? Hadn't I spent so many moments in different bathrooms marveling at how the toilet bowl worked? 

She laughed at my answer--the rest of the class laughing with her--and asked for an explanation so they could laugh some more. But I could not give one, because the class was in Filipino and until Grade 4 we were speaking Cebuano at home. I was already fluent in the Tagalog my cousins and playmates spoke, but in school there was this style of affected Filipino being spoken by our teachers and I could never, up to now, speak it.

After that incident, I spent a couple of weeks downgrading my view of the precious but apparently non-technologically advanced toilet plunger, and even now, when I see one, I am reminded of that moment in class although I have long forgotten the teacher.

Looking back now, what I also learned then was the difference between questions of fact and questions of opinion and how it makes people feel when you confuse the two, so maybe it was not all that bad.

But oh, Agapito Flores! Discovering the lie about him was also discovering the beauty of language and logic. Shortly after being taught about Agapito Flores, I encountered the word fluorescence, probably in Reader's Digest or maybe when reading about rocks in the encyclopedia, and then looked it up in the dictionary. 

We had been taught that Agapito Flores was an electrical engineer who invented the fluorescent lamp in the 1920s and then sold all his rights to his invention to General Electric, who developed it further and still named it after him anyway.

But the etymology, the origin story, of the word fluorescence quickly told me otherwise: It was coined in the 1850s, from flour-spar, a mineral which, yes, fluoresces. Another thing that fluoresces? The fluorescent lamp. There was no mention of Agapito Flores at all! 

If the fluorescent lamp was named after this phenomenon, where was Agapito Flores in all this? Nowhere!  

My little world crumbled with the embarrassment of this lie being spread by books and teachers, even in--gasp!--respectable learning institutions. But as quickly as my world crumbled, it also rebuilt itself into something better. 

My brain had always felt dim in school, mostly because in my early years I struggled with language, but I had always suspected there was a spark of intelligence there that could be set alight. And Agapito Flores, whoever and wherever he was, real or not, helped me realize that I was right. 

There are people who would laugh at you for thinking differently than others, and often these are people who are dumb precisely because they think they are already smart. Sometimes, these people are placed in positions of influence over you and they can teach you the wrong things, directly or indirectly. 

But I learned in the same moment I learned about the lie that is Agapito Flores that there was a response to that: I could learn on my own through my own learning paths, no matter how meandering. Outside of school, there were books and other teachers and other sources of learning. And then there was me who was capable of making sense of things, after all. 

This knowledge bloomed in my mind, and has, since then, stayed bright because it was I myself who switched on the light. If there is anything I can remotely attribute to Agapito Flores, it is that.

'And still the scales balance'

The Weighing
By Jane Hirshfield

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.