Patterns. Our lives are ruled by these. By routines, by threads of familiar incidents that repeat themselves in some form.
Since 2013, I have noticed one grim thread: Once a year, I keep facing the possibility of death. I don’t think this is happening on purpose, or that anyone is after me. I think these events are just caused by an odd coupling of bad luck and not thinking clearly because of stress. They’ve happened enough to me that I’ve started to call them NTEs, short for Near Tragic Experiences. Here is a catalog of these so far:
NTE #1: A Close Call on a Mountain (2013)
In 2013, I thought I was going to spend the last minutes of my life on a mountain. I was hiking for a project, and, thinking it was a day hike, packed accordingly. Unfortunately, it was a bigger mountain than expected and I didn’t beat the sunset upon my descent. I spent about 10 to 15 minutes blind in the pitch-black mountain. Branches scratched my face. My arms flailed wildly. I thought I lost the trail, but I knew there was a temple nearby. With my feet, I gauged where the trail was sloping down—surely it leads to an exit!—and saw a flickering light on the corner of my eye. It was too early in the year for fireflies. I followed it and saw that it was a lantern. And in fact, I had found the trail and the rest of it was lit by lanterns because the temple nearby, usually dark and closed at this time of the night (because hello who hikes at this time of the day), celebrated Buddha’s birthday on that day. It was May 17th, 2013.
(I previously wrote about this, which you can read here.)
NTE #2: Almost Burned (2014)
Last year, I moved to Manila and lived in a hotel. Pro: It was near my family’s house, it was convenient, it was near my dojang. Con: It was in the red light district, I would wake because of people next door getting busy or fighting, the infrastructure wasn’t fantastic. Manila is not the easiest city for me to live in, but I had to hit the ground running for an art residency and my first solo exhibition. At the end of six months, I was unhappy, felt completely voided of energy, and was wondering what to do next. One night, the cafe right below my room caught fire, and we had to evacuate. Hours later, I watched the old building burst into flames. We got out just in time. This was what was left of my room (actually, that’s the cafe; the room caved in and the bed went through the floor).
Unfortunately, one thing I learned that year is that when you think you can’t feel any lower, you actually can.
NTE #3: Nearly Suffocating in a Public Bath (2015)
In a visit to South Korea, I spent my last day in one of their public baths. It was a jimjilbang in an airport. How convenient! It was starting to freeze in Seoul, so I was immensely joyous at soaking in water that was heated to 41°C. Perhaps I was in there for too long or perhaps the sudden changes in temperature were too much for me, but when I went into the shower I started feeling faint. My vision started blurring, my chest started to tighten, and I had a seriously hard time breathing. Just before I passed out, I willed myself to breathe and to sit down. A few minutes of wheezing and vomiting passed before I finally left the shower where I met three Korean ajumma (middle-aged ladies), who looked annoyed at how long I stayed there. Still dizzy and nauseous, I bowed multiple times and apologized sheepishly while I tried to hold myself on a wall. They gave me the Unblinking Ajumma Death Stare. You Koreans know what I’m talking about.
I find the sauna story hilarious now but at that time, I really thought I was in deep shit.
Each time I faced these events, survival instincts kicked in. “I refuse to die in the dark on a mountain/in a hotel in the red light district/nude in a bath with all of these other naked people!” I think going through these things sucked, but all things considered I’m pretty satisfied—proud, even—of how I handled myself. No screaming or hysterical sobbing or anything. I just remember the realization in my head that “Shit, so this is how it goes down.” I also remember mentally telling myself, “Don’t panic. Breathe.” And what went through my head when I was out of danger: “Bitch I’m alive! Woohoo!”
Actually, during and in the immediate aftermath of nearly falling off cliffs, or burning to death, or asphyxiating, I remember some of my taekwondo teachers (in particular, their voices, especially when they were screaming commands), mainly because they’ve prepared me for situations like these, although ugly wheezing in a public bath probably wasn’t on their list of what-ifs. Martial arts is the life blood of everything I do; I can’t do my work without it. I was never the best in my classes—I was just the one who kept showing up. And hey what do you know? It actually does save my ass from time to time. Thanks, guys!
Some things changed in me as a result of facing mortality every year. I give less time to things and people who don’t matter. I make decisions faster. I work on as many creatively fulfilling projects as possible because they might be the last. Facing tragedy gives a layer of clarity to one’s life and perspective. It brings a sense of urgency and purpose to my days. Each time I wake up, I want to make it count. (On a lighter note, I also feel it gave me heightened senses. Not like a spider sense or anything, but I pay more attention to the time of the day, how the air smells, my pulse, etc. I also felt that these events made me a better artist and writer, because there’s a greater range of human experience I can draw from. Bitch, I’m alive.)
Now I know close calls happen to lots of us, but in my case, as they happened to me for the past three years straight—the life-flashing-before-my-eyes bit and all—I’ve decided, surprise, surprise, to turn it into a project.
Anyway, one thing I started last year was to send cards to my friends during the holidays. It really helped to be in touch with my friends from all over the world, especially when I had a serious case of PTSD and depression after the fire. I had friends calling me from overseas and messaging me online because they were afraid for my mental health. (Frankly, so was I.) This was around November and so I got the idea of writing to them—sort of a thank you + Hey Happy Holidays in one go. I’m not much into gushy letters so I decided to let the physical form of the card reflect the time it took to make it.
Last year’s card was an origami Santa Claus on a velociraptor. But why not.
I sent special black belt Santas to some of my taekwondo teachers.
When I got back from Seoul and after the sauna incident, I realized that thanking people every year for being in your life might not be the worst idea ever. Try it. It takes me about a day or two to do everything and I don’t feel like it’s such a burden. I actually felt lighter afterwards, and gratitude is one of the things that can make you happier and live longer. It’s also a good exercise in creativity; a small card is nonthreatening enough to be a fun canvas. Some of my friends don’t celebrate Christmas, so these (and succeeding cards) are meant to celebrate the New Year.
This year, it’s a card with messages written in UV-activated ink (so you have to place it under the sun for 10 to 20 minutes) and phosphorescent ink (so you can read it in the dark). On the front are instructions:
At the back of the card is a message in grey. When you place it under the sun, the UV-activated ink will turn purple. In this card, some of the letters are in plain watercolor so you can decipher the message after you give it a solar bath. The yellow letters glow in the dark.
So I do this to remember the people I’ve encountered the past year and to let them know that hey, it was good to know you. You know, just in case I lose the “Near” in Near Tragic Experience and one day I won’t have a chance to say it. It’s just a small thank you that I send out once a year. Don’t panic. It’s not like I’m in love with you or anything. Hello. It’s just a card.
To make it worth the postage and the carbon, I will make each year’s card really special and worth collecting. In ten years, if you’ve managed to collect at least 5, let me know and you win a prize! No, really. It’s good for nomads like myself to have relationships that last at least that long.
I’ll post them all on this page as I go along.