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In a perpetual state of ‘figuring’

Ever since I moved into my apartment behind a mall in northern Manila, I have been waking up to the sound of church bells and worship songs from a nearby parish. Sometimes, as early as 6 a.m., the priest’s homily reverberates from the church’s speakers all the way to my building, like an urgent dispatch from the town criers of ancient villages.

“Not all killings are bad,” I once heard a priest say while I was grinding coffee beans for my millennial morning rituals. “Sometimes, we have to kill our bad habits and sinful ways,” the priest, through those speakers, told me—a 27-year-old woman who had not set foot in a church to hear God’s word for years. But I thought of how the Church had staunchly fought against the nightly killings in dark alleyways over the years when guns ruled over law, so I held my breath.

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At first it was trivial to hear the church choir sing from breakfast to dinner. But it went on for months, until hearing eight Masses a day became a part of the daily routine of this agnostic woman. You would eventually get used to choosing between gospel music and Taylor Swift songs for studying.

Repetition, according to Merriam-Webster, is a motion or exercise that is repeated and usually counted. It was like the many times I sang along to “Kordero ng Diyos” and answered back to “peace be with you” from my balcony. It also meant hearing “Dynamite,” the English smash hit of Korean boy band BTS, played on loop in the condo lobby—a managerial decision I never dared to question.

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Repetition, I learned from living alone for the first time in my life, is the act of saying or doing something again and again— until I get used to it in a good way. I started to paint my mornings differently— from waking up to the smell of black coffee, warm bread, and perfectly cooked eggs on the table that my mother made for me, to learning how to fry my own egg or make a toast without burning them to a crisp. It takes days and days of repetition to cook eggs the right way—the way you like it—and it requires taking note of the little details you would otherwise not notice if those eggs were handed to you on a silver platter. But we learn by observation. And we pick up lessons from burned eggs and toasts.

You see, I never imagined it would be possible to turn from a girl who can’t even cook her own meals to a woman who no longer fears the kitchen. She could now hold back her tears every time her mother brings her favorite dish and takes that long ride back home before the day ends. Sometimes her mother would scold her: “You’re not drinking enough water.” “You are not cleaning the refrigerator.” “You should keep things organized.” But she’s realized that all of that is also a form of repetition her mother has fostered over the years she had raised her. Repetition is a reaffirmation.

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Another dictionary defines repetition as an event, usually an undesirable event, that happens again. Example: The government has taken measures to prevent a repetition of last year’s lockdown; they don’t want a repetition of past mistakes.

“We are always what our situations hand us,” Billy Joel sings in “Summer, Highland Falls,” my favorite song of his next to “Vienna.” But you will never get used to the weariness and anxiety. With the state’s failed pandemic response, repetition becomes violence. It’s the same string of lies, the senseless assaults on democracy and human rights, and the shameless blame game that make you feel nauseated—almost docile. Living in the Philippines has always been a hard lesson on repetition, privilege, and power.

Repetition, of course, breeds impunity.

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A year after the country’s highest official put the entire island of Luzon under lockdown, we are doomed to experience the same blunders. Poor families already cramming for their own survival have been disproportionately hurt by the health crisis. They continue to grapple with limited access to quality and affordable health care services, housing, and employment opportunities.

But repetition, in the time of pandemic, also means using the same words again and again, even if they become redundant. For instance, we still say “see you soon” every time we part with a loved one. We profusely watch as our sentiments of care and anxiety merge into a single phrase in a time of uncertainty: “Take care, ’til we meet again.”

Living alone has made me realize that we are in a perpetual state of figuring, of meaning-making, as we hold on to “illusions of permanence, congruence and linearity; old static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives” (from Maria Popova’s “Figuring”). In this journey, we depend on repetition to learn what’s good and weed out what’s bad, as everything we do causes ripples in the water that each of us doesn’t hold in solitude.

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Mariejo S. Ramos, 27, writes news for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She is a storyteller and a vulnerable observer.

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