First loves

Written on April 5, 2014.

*

I was listening to a podcast today that talked about how, from the ages 1 to 12, our brains are the most pliable they can ever be. The speaker, Erwin Mc Manus, said, “Unbeknownst to us, we were all creative savants at one point. During the early stages of its development, the brain is a sponge and can easily learn anything — given enough time and repeated practice.”

After the age of 12, he explained, the brain zones in on the skills that we are already comfortable with or are instinctively good at. While we can still develop new abilities as we enter our mid to late teens and beyond, our learning curve ultimately gets slower and slower.

Interesting, huh?

***

My mom has this favorite anecdote about me:

I am four-years-old and we are living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is a cushy life with my dad being the Creative Director of a respectable advertising agency — an agency that wants him on their team so bad, they gave us a four-bedroom condominium, a private car and tuition money to fund my siblings’ international education.

My mom, being a stay-at-home wife, spends a lot of her days dragging me to the mall or the grocery store with her to finish errands. (I was a pretty compliant kid.) But she always makes sure to get us home in time for a short afternoon nap. She’d whip up a bottle of milk for me, settle us both into bed, turn on the aircon, pick a story and read it out loud.

There’s a large selection of books on the shelf but she goes through my favorites again and again. Even though I’ve heard them about a hundred times, I don’t mind; happy to chug on the milk and watch the same fairytale unfold in my imagination before I surrender to sleep.

One particular afternoon, my mom dozes off mid-way through the story, unable to fight the drowsiness brought about by the cool room. She wakes up a few seconds later to the sound of me reciting the story out loud, picking up right where she left off. Because even if I can’t read just yet, I love the words so much that I’ve committed them to memory.

And she looks at me, amazed.

***

If what Erwin Mc Manus is saying is true, then it’s obvious that the skills my brain ultimately gravitated towards have everything to do with words. My parents enrolled me in a short-term ballet class and a four-week art class but they fed me stories everyday. When I got to grade school, we were living in Manila already, and I was painfully shy. Unable to speak enough Tagalog to converse with my classmates or make friends, I found myself hiding in the library a lot, getting lost in Beverly Cleary books instead. Words were familiar to me and they became a refuge when the real world refused to make sense. Looking back, it seems as though almost everything about my childhood guaranteed an inevitable affair with words, the kind that lasts a lifetime.

Some people have music or art or some other passion they’ve set up as a home for themselves. I used to think I got the short stick because writing and reading seem a lot flatter than dancing or entrepreneurship or sports. But I know now that what I carry on the inside is richer that I used to give it credit for. To enter worlds, to create them, to connect with a sentence or a phrase or a scene — that’s powerful stuff.

I don’t read as much as I used to because, if I have to be honest, the internet has really dumbed me down in a lot of ways. I can’t do anything anymore without sporadically going online to check Twitter or look through Buzzfeed. Consequently, I am perpetually distracted and the idea of sitting still to read has become increasingly difficult to contend with. It’s … sad. Really sad.

When I fall into slumps like this, I pick out a book I have always been in love with and go back to it, trusting that it will take me back to my first love. My real love. Just recently, in an effort to break my non-reading streak, I re-read Patrick Ness’ The Chaos Walking trilogy, which is my favorite dystopian series ever. (Not a popular opinion but I don’t care because I love it so much and when you love something so much, there’s nothing anyone else can do about it.) I finished the last book, Monsters of Men, at 2 in the morning yesterday and I was so heartbroken afterwards. Have you ever had that hollow feeling in your chest that you get once you’ve been wrenched away from a world you’ve invested so much of yourself in? That was me last night.

Sigh. The post-reading blues. (They’re kind of the worst.)

I don’t know why I’m writing this, really. But I felt compelled to talk about my first love. I want to gush. I’m brought back to the sweet simplicity a book can bring and it’s an amazing, amazing thing. It’s a miracle. I’m dancing on the inside,  now looking for new words to love even more.

There’s ridiculous joy that comes with loving something so much, it moves you and saves you — from yourself and from the banality of life.

I hope, really and truly, that you all have something like that to keep you afloat when the days seem to make no sense.

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