In the face of overlapping and unprecedented crises, an immigrant mom protects her family through play.
Why not us?
“You can’t stop,” I told him, thinking of all the people unlike him who don’t have the luxury to just recoil from their cruel lives. “I never stopped.”
I can tell you’re pretending you can’t hear us. I used to do the same thing. My parents lost all their money overnight when I was a little girl. They fought about it. My mother became violent because of it. My dad eventually left. I told myself I would never grow up to be them. But now here we are, in our kitchen, after weeks of protecting you from the stress and anxiety, slowly cracking open because we, your parents, can only shoulder so much. There’s a new virus out there. We can’t be with our friends. Your father can’t eat, sleep, talk. I try not to cry while doing the dishes.
There’s a kitchen island between us and I’m a fool to think it separates my grief from your awareness. But combing your doll’s hair, you ask, “Mama, wanna play with me and Sophie?”
“Sweet Sophie,” I say in another one of my playtime voices—usually one with a terrible British accent if we’re playing with your dolls. “Must I braid your hair today, miss?”
The cybercrime and the lockdown were not my first experiences with liquidation, destruction, deletion. I lived as an undocumented teen and young adult for eight years after oversights in my transnational adoption process led to my falling “out of status.” (And before that, I lived in my biological parents’ house with very little food, no running water, and no electricity.)
What I learned in the years I was in citizenship purgatory, and that I carried over into the months we’ve spent in financial and social hell, and have kept close in 2020 as I watched Black lives stolen, human dignity and lives taken, and our ability to protect our health undermined, was my one weapon against annihilation: creative play.
In the years I was considered “illegal” by a government, and despite very few resources and my lack of “proper” identification, I wrote essays because language let me play. I could write about politics or history or sex like I was writing a grocery list, a comic book, or a letter to an imaginary friend. When life was impossible, I turned to play and craft as they belonged to the realm of possibility. The page: second skin to step into so I could do what I needed to do, say what I needed to say. Ink bled. Punctuation was a full stop, a connector, a pause, like breath. Some words added texture, like goosebumps. Others, depth like gaping wounds. And then when I was done, I stepped back out and saw the full human in front of me, asking for my love. I was the imaginary friend all along.
I played in other ways, too. For under-the-table cash, I styled magazine photoshoots: grown-up dress-up. I helped curate a contemporary art show in a Chelsea gallery: grown-up make-believe. I learned to cook, bake, bike, paint, play Bocce, do calligraphy, do latte art, and walk a tightrope—all while working to afford immigrant petitions, appeals, and a lawyer. When they told me I couldn’t have space in this country, I made my own world within play.
There is a quote from the artist Makoto Fujimura that’s taped on my studio wall and that I sometimes read to you. Desperate for anything to bring your dad back to life, I read it loud so my words echo down the hallway to his office, in yet another one of my voices (this time, my “Four score and seven years ago” voice), at a random hour on a random day (which is how we mark time in a pandemic):
Do not be washed away in apathy, entropy and decay . . . art is not a frivolous, peripheral activity, but it has to do with the deepest core of existence; it is to love yourself, and your neighbors. Art defines what makes us human; and fully human, we will be making things.
In the evening, your dad pulls out his pallets of watercolors and asks us if we want to paint with him. He, the cheapskate, even pulls out his nice, cotton-fiber watercolor paper. We paint late into the night on the kitchen table. We paint mostly animals, undiscovered ones. Animals of our own making.
Today, nine months into quarantine and our fight to reclaim not just money, but time, energy, and peace of mind, that’s been stolen from us, my family also has the privilege to look back on a 2020 that’s full of creativity and play—a year in the first house we’ve ever owned and which we’ve defied expulsion from, built on a foundation of water- and Nerf gun battles, Pictionary images that accidentally look like penises, failed backbend attempts, successful backbend attempts, iPad games, and homemade toys for our pet bunny. We colored our hair blue one week, purple the next. Quarantine haircuts made an appearance, too. We learned our first TikTok dance (“Renegade”), then our second (“Say So”), then our third (“Savage”).
I made my own world within play.
My husband and I built a hutch for our bunny, made food for friends and neighbors (even when we risked not being able to pay for our own groceries), made a garden out of saplings from a Facebook plant swap page, made new candles from the remnant wax of old ones (the end products stank), and wallpapered my studio in wild Dalmatian print. We made love, you bet, which then made room for naps. We have not, however, made bread—but the pandemic, alas, is not over.
There’s a TikTok song that makes you giggle. It’s a got a naughty verse: Lowkey fuck 2020. When the clean version plays on the radio, I try to sing over it and actually say the F word. I say it because . . . because we got nothing else but these small reasons to laugh. Oh, it tickles you to hear me curse. “Mama!” you say as you cup your hand over my mouth, embarrassed but absolutely, secretly, amused by your mother saying a bad word.
And so, I’ve entitled our oeuvre after it:
Barnes family (b. 1986, 1986, 2011)
Lowkey Fuck 2020,ca. the year the world was on fire
Under the threat of obliteration, we taught our minds and hearts to “not give in to apathy, entropy and decay,” but to instead make art and have fun as a means to love ourselves and love our neighbor, which should really be what we think of when we say, “Love thy country.” This country, my baby, will tell you all sorts of things about what it means to be human or human enough. They will tell you to work hard, build a life, buy a house, fill it with things, fill it some more. All these can be taken from you. (Though they shouldn’t, they will.) But they cannot—cannot—take what you make out of your grief, your sadness, your love, your joy. My girl, there’s this genius woman whose work I read. Her name is Audre Lorde. She says caring for yourself is not self-indulgence but self-preservation, an “act of political warfare.” This is true. You hail from island people whose anthem is made up of words like sea and sky and breeze and poem and song and stars and sun and joy. These cannot be taken from you. Your ancestors believed that joy was resistance against the colonizers that pillaged our islands for tobacco. Did you know that the Filipinos who resisted the Spaniards also built, out of invasive bamboo, boats the color of the sunset? And after the Americans and Japanese bombed our cities, Filipinos made, out of abandoned war trucks, jeepneys the color of popsicles? Remember what your titos and titas buy with their extra earnings from cleaning houses or caring for the sick? Karaoke machines! This joyful ingenuity is your heritage; the heirloom that will never depreciate and can never be stolen—not in real life, not online.
I received a call from a debt collection officer who, after my plea, said, “It’s not my problem. It’s your problem. You have to pay or there will be penalties.”
I hung up. I picked up my pen. I started writing this essay. I was low-key making things happen. The stories I write make what’s fleeting, permanent. The material, ethereal. The painful, bearable. I am trying to love the human in front of me. Also, I’m just trying to get paid.
When you grow up, here’s what I want you to remember: In the quiet of your daily service, have faith in the understated—low-key— power of your breath, your hands, your imagination. They make up your long heritage of ingenuity. Then look at life’s troubles, tell ‘em F you!, and you decorate your house, laugh the hardest laugh, wear the biggest wig.
And you’ll hear, in any one of my many voices but most likely the one I use when I softly sing you to sleep, “You are my greatest treasure. You are it.”
Cinelle is a formerly undocumented memoirist, essayist & educator from the Philippines, and is the author of MONSOON MANSION: A MEMOIR and MALAYA: ESSAYS ON FREEDOM, and the editor of the New York Times New & Noteworthy book A MEASURE OF BELONGING: 21 WRITERS OF COLOR ON THE NEW AMERICAN SOUTH. She has an MFA from Converse College. Her writing has appeared or been featured in the NYT, Longreads, Electric Literature, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Hyphen & CNN Philippines, among others. Her work is anthologized in A MAP IS ONLY ONE STORY. She’s a contributing editor, instructor & writer at Catapult.