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The thing with feathers—and nostalgia

You see, the thing with feathers is that, if you’re, say, a falcon, having feathers is probably the best thing that has ever happened to you as these enable you to soar into the sky. But then again, that is the thing with feathers: if you’re a peacock, therefore elegance, not flight, remains as your bragging right.

With Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo’s new book, The Thing with Feathers: My Book of Memories, a reader could either choose to soar, or simply look and feel grand, with such tales that both enlighten and entertain, and see the better part of ourselves in memories which we, at one point, may have deeply regretted or simply let slip away.

As the book preface says, “These narratives/essays are mementos of an ordinary life—tales of love and loss, reflections on coming of age and confronting the decline, on joys hard won and deep abiding sorrows, fragments of dreams forgotten, forsaken, retrieved, honoured… The title is a curtsey to the poet Emily Dickinson’s feathery creature, her singing metaphor for hope.”

In a world that has gone to the dogs, we are in profound need of such stories, fashioned with grace and refinement, like rubies on a magical charm.

The book is no ordinary memoir. It scales the ever-spiralling stairwell of memory with but one thing in mind: to view the role and use of each rumination in the context of the ominous signs that confront us each day. How an ordinary life, recalled with such sense of enchantment and finesse, might have the power to illuminate a creeping darkness.

Neither is Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo your girl-next-door storyteller. She’s more than what the diwata of the magical mountains could ever hope to be. As enchanted as her own fictional stories are wont to show, her non-fiction promises more. Suffice it that she can snatch nuggets of memories from a bygone era and transform them into gems no fictional tale could ever hope to outshine.

As my esteemed colleague in journalism, and one I surprisingly found out was a fellow Paulinian, Hidalgo begins her book with an essay for which I have a warm spot in my heart—Early Apprenticeship (or Everything I Need to Know about Journalism).

The author, fondly called Jing, during her college days

It kicks off rather casually with the recollection of a small journalism seminar-workshop at the school’s main branch in Malate. Hidalgo begins snatching bits of memory from some magical baul somewhere which, even I, admittedly, have regretfully forgotten:

“I had made up my mind to be a ‘newspaperwoman’ someday, ever since I discovered the comic-strip reporter, Brenda Starr—she with the flaming red hair and the starry eyes, and the Mystery Man with the eye patch named Basil St. John.”

I would not have recalled Brenda Starr—my long lost crush and heroine of a profession I had no idea I’d be part of decades later—had it not been for this book. Remembering her adventures today means all the world to me as I, too, had once dreamt of being a newspaperman.

The essay goes on to mention the rigors and bluster of press work in the day of the letterpress, something campus journalists today would’ve loved to experience.

“It is difficult for campus writers today to imagine letterpress printing—the manual composition by hand of rough layouts; the paste-ups; the Linotype machines which produced “slugs” or lines of type from molten metal, which were then locked into a bed or chase, and slathered with ink; the rotary presses, which rolled and rumbled and spewed out the sheets of paper which became the actual newspaper copies. All of it—the clicking of manual typewriters, the ringing of telephones, the smell of printer’s ink, the hustle, the bustle, the clatter, the clutter—it was as today’s kids like to say, awesome!”

Hidalgo’s memoir, which are mostly social media status updates or Notes, is unique in that it includes engagements from social media friends. Many of the exchanges, included in the essays, were hilarious.

Jim Albano comments, “Those slugs from Linotype machines taught me how to read reversed and inverted/upside down words, Jing! *smiley*

Hidalgo replies: “Oo nga, Jim. And remember the “stripping dept.” of UST Press where we had to read the proofs in negatives on a table with back lighting? Nakakaduling!

Hidalgo’s flair for nostalgia is such that I could actually smell the ink from the letterpresses and hear the typewriters long after I was done reading each page. It was this same vision of a working letterpress I had years back—the huge rolls of paper, the smell of ink and the flurry of machines—which inspired me to one day be a journalist.

But of all the sweet curiosities found in her book, the one thing I held with profound interest (and fondness) was a photograph of Hidalgo’s appointment, in September 1964, as feature writer and editor of the Better Living section of the Weekly Graphic.

The Weekly Graphic was the 1960’s forerunner of today’s Philippines Graphic magazine before the former was forced to halt the presses during the declaration of Martial Law in 1972. It was at this time when the magazine’s editors were hauled into jail.

“I worked for the Graphic only a year, though,” Hidalgo writes. “I have been accepted by both Georgetown University and Fordham University, but I also got engaged. So I gave up that dream of going to the university in America, for another dream that I had not realized I considered more important. Academe seemed a more sensible career option than journalism for a married woman who would be raising a family.”

Hidalgo’s question of the role and use of nostalgia, particularly her own life story, in arresting the slow but definite swerve of the world towards the alt-right and the proliferation of lies, is one that needs answering.

The author with UST Publishing House director Ailil Alvarez, during the National Book Awards

And the answer is simple: memory teaches us that while for some feathers may serve as a means for flight, for others they remind them of their inherent ability to be wise and beautiful. It reminds people of joys hard-fought and won, of struggles that opened our eyes to both the hardships and consolations life offers, with the hope that each experience, ordinary though they may seem, would someday serve as wings for the downtrodden.

The author concludes in her preface, “Attempting to understand why these things matter, attempting to create new meaning, to draw wisdom, is, I believe honourable work. In doing so, I am keeping the faith. And so is everyone who engages in conversations like these.”

Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo’s The Thing with Feathers: My Book of Memories is published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. G

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