On Ceilings

Reading Time: 9 minutes

I now understand that I’m in the very fortunate position of life where I can choose how high I want to go and end it at my choosing.

For a long while, I was frustrated that this route never seemed to get any easier. Before college I played the predictable game of my lackluster high school’s education system and won it. I left the country for Yale University with everyone thinking that I had made it while I had never been more anxious. For the past four years, I suffocated myself in in-betweens, destroying my body working insane hours to overcompensate from being detached from my home country. I was fueled, toxically yet steadily, by resentment for injustice: anything from this new life I was living I would bring back home. Then I learned, as I always do, to acclimate quickly to the conditions of American success while discarding pleasantries and experiences that I thought were useless. I swiped into my university dining hall about fourteen times total throughout my entire first year. After stumbling around startup & student VC circles, collectives working towards ill-defined definitions of intersectional justice, friendly circles of creators I had never met, and alone, for myself, in basements states away for music shows of tiny bands, I suddenly could become myself again. I lived in a shady Airbnb for a month at the beginning of my senior year where every night the man residing there would bang at my door in the middle of the night and flew to Chicago for a music festival to come back and learn that half my belongings were stolen, and all the belongings left at Yale in the year prior were somehow lost—nearly all of what I had, because I had little left in the Philippines—and hopped into an overpriced studio later in the month. It was frantic and misshapen, but I was in the position to ghost a Facebook recruiter after receiving an offer to work at a company I felt more ethically aligned with instead (even if it was imperfect), and had too much faith placed in me by professors who knew that I was doing great things despite never attending class. I speak about this too much and it’s hard to articulate until it happens to you, but being truthful and myself after a certain degree made it significantly easier to build the life I had wanted; what I had needed came to me with more clarity, the right people and experiences became self-selecting. Then I took a break at the start of 2022, my last semester of college where I took seven credits to graduate, and fit four years of experiences into a semester and the summer after that—until my lease expired. I filled 350 square feet with CDs and cassettes and objects of my making that reflected what I had loved in futile attempt to recover all that I lost, even if all its meaning was denounced when I couldn’t give interesting stories behind each one without a timepiece. After forgetting nearly everything about how I’ve grown up, in the middle of empty conversations my head rushes back to something small I experienced when I was younger. All my good memories are ones that I’ve made for myself. I haven’t stepped back in the Philippines in three years now.

In the middle of all this I’ve felt rushes of feeling this world was mine, because I was free and capable and independent, and then deep senses of purposelessness. I think purpose is of course, defined only by ourselves, and perhaps the hardest thing to seek — for those who can’t live life without it, like me. All this life was about other people and I had no one; and most of the time all this pro-bono work was killing me and getting me closer only to loose abstractions of care. I cried when I realized that I had no one to put as my emergency contact number, and when someone told me that I had no support system, which I still think about heavily until this day. I work a dream job and I’m not sure who it’s for. Many things I’ve wanted to do, mostly ones that relate to other people, never made it. Many things I made were built in a night. Many times I was never present, and whenever I was I never regretted it because I learned to easily walk away from things. All this glory that I was working towards was to serve some abstract ideal of myself that no one but myself was expecting. I think life is generally meaningless, still, and this independence is most freeing because I can choose to end it myself any day.

I also left for California in a rush and had friends who packed the remains of my room for days and nights. Now I live in another overpriced loft where I can’t reach the ceiling or the cabinets above my fridge.

At this point I’m thinking about ceilings. I’m thinking about how I can, again, climb and strain myself for the next tier — but am already living in a dream state. The problem about larger dreaming is that it is divorced from the people around you. Our floors here all relate to financial positioning, or movement to a dream location, or maybe most agreeably, what we spend our weekdays on. Many of these life decisions are improvements of the self and your direct family when we send paychecks back home, but few move you towards systems of communal care outside the structure of the nuclear family. I can temporarily believe in success built across our networks from distance, but I’ve worked these past years knowing nothing is the same as dedicating time to a community and building something from the ground up.

Everything beautiful in my life was a moment of my making, and the most beautiful were moments I made with friends. Many of these things were building experiences out of nothing, spaces for ourselves in areas of dearth.

After settling into this new life, I feel like I will be soon in a position to choose a ceiling within the commitments that we’re bound by in society; especially ones that my student visa here restricts me to. Whatever leveling in a company I choose to go for, I’m sure I can eventually work my ass off and reach, in an institution that aligns with my larger goal of making creation ubiquitous. This is not saying I’ll half-ass my work; I think design and computing, which might seem very contrary to the goals of closing distance and being face-to-face with people, can be reclaimed as purposeful agents to construct this ideal world. Again, there’s the tactic of rerouting and the preservation of my mental energy outside of work hours to build larger structures of care: ones more pertinent to the people I love, ones that will outlast me so greatly that I will make them and find myself no longer necessary. Creating systems that empower the people I love to continue building those systems is of main interest to me, amongst other things I want to do.

I can choose these ceilings because I’ve somehow fallen into a life that has shown me what distance and space mean; when they can be rendered relevant or irrelevant and how to do it. I’ve looked at so many and remember only the contours of the ceilings within the rooms I grew up in more than I do the colors of the walls, because it was likely the thing I looked at most with the computer screen second. In sterile environments I found spaces where people could come together, learn; I think the most purposeful extensions of myself I can build are the ones I put into what I create — because I’m reclusive and less often get to the part of knowing someone where they can read all this about me. I love the computer and design because it gave me freedom and agency, I love the suffering I’ve embedded myself in because it taught me how to radically retreat from repressive spaces — together, the tools to reshape them.

When I was in middle school I ripped out grid pages from our math notebooks, folded them and tore them apart, and constructed little cities made out of buildings and roads and mansions with fountains and farms. We colored and highlighted the houses and reassembled them, making up town names with every iteration and sometimes using pens & pencils as people going about their lives. I kept them all in a plastic envelope until it was so bulky that it would no longer close, so we divided the little grid buildings amongst ourselves. Tiny blueprints for a life.

I believe in other simple things: that because I’m 8,000 miles away from the people I love and have met so many wonderful people I truly care for that I unfortunately haven’t met in real life, systems of communication for when we are far apart matter just as much as the ways we convene in-person. I think the debate of authenticity and the duality of the online vs. offline self is skewed by people who have had overwhelmingly performative experiences with technology, which I cannot blame them for because technology must be reclaimed, for growing up it was only online that I began to discover myself and therefore know myself. It was seeds I learned from online networks of people who were open (maybe a bit too much) that enabled me to shift, for a moment, the way people around me thought. If we can design interfaces to be truthful & expressive, create spaces of our own so that we can begin interacting on these platforms with good faith, we could one day become no different from seeing our refracted, opposing self in a mirror. I believe in the computer because most of these ideas and revelations I have no one to tell, so I tell it to it, and it tells my story to someone else who finds this one day. All these ways I’ve preserved myself are under my control. My way of living this life splayed out open and visible is a nod to all the lives I read about that had formed me as I was growing up; I know there are others who choose to write and share this way, as their life’s default, and I continue it all because there are more ways than one to give yourself to others. What I choose to build is the essence of myself, and the essence of technology, like art and magic, is a promise of what we would like to see in the world. The story of screens is my story, at least a part of it, but certainly will be a huge part of how I am remembered. If I’m a redeemable object, so are the tools I use and extend to others.

Even if I lacked the luck of landing into technology in the ‘right way’ in a time where everything is tending towards it, my trait of obsessiveness and unapologetically leaning into that — whether there is some measurable or predictable or not, would carry me. Most of the people I admire very deeply share this same quality. This might be part of defining that ambiguous thing of purpose: what I care about is who I am, and because I care about it there is meaning towards it, especially if I guide this care and obsessiveness to the goal of improving the wellbeing of others.

The current goal is to find what is an appropriate ceiling to work towards and to immerse myself in local communities again. Living for local structures of care and building smaller, purposeful tools is important: while I believe in abundance, too many things are extended and scaled to the point of disconnection. Nihilism and isolation, which are clear things plaguing me from my writing and just reading me for a minute, are symptoms not just of the self but are pervasive byproducts from the world today. This is why the ceilings I was told to go for were individualistic, capital-oriented. A lot of this struggle is structural. It should not have been as hard as it was for me; much of the journey was an individual one.

One brick after another. A brick tossed. I’m laying the world I wanted, as I always have. I’m struggling with my imaginary against the complex interweaving of lives within insecure systems that my loved ones are stuck within. I’m imagining more than the ceiling, perhaps. Every space I’m in from now on, an open one; just as I built my life in this realm.

Work towards resilient, communal community structures and resources is radical and often disenfranchised by higher authorities. It’s also more interesting, unpredictable, and interconnected. Community fridges in the Philippines are often shut down and grassroots collectives often depowered & deplatformed for the highers’ fears of their resistance and criticism. Systems of care are fragile and fragmented; they are what truly need investment and maintenance. We live in spaces that discourage organizing and disconnect us so we cannot band together.
The corporate ladder, compared to longstanding cultural & community work–is a farce. It is the easy route, in truth. One is a newly-built monolith constantly destroying itself to sustain this goodness for a few; the other is how society has been sustained for thousands of years. It is easy to build a ‘good’ life for yourself. It’s much harder to build an interconnected one: a life that all the people you love can build towards together and find themselves around. It is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult thing to extend joy. There’s an in-between to all of this that doesn’t retreat to the “move to the middle of nowhere and start a coffee shop narrative”; this is where the random love letter to computing in the midst of the love letter to all else in life came in. I want the wonder in every moment I’ve made to be extended outwards, as the things of my own making have made myself. Why would I spend a single second working in a system I didn’t believe in? Why spend a moment working towards a structure that doesn’t serve the life you want to live and the people who you’d like to have in that life? How are you going to teach the people you love to continue building the world you wanted for them?

Without our choosing, we’re all subject to the ceilings that someone else has laid before us. All before me was all of humanity. All that I resent, desire, all that I am driven to move towards and change; reducible to human confluence and crossings and all our evolving self. The foundations and highs of the world I am in have been (not entirely, but close enough) worked at by man, and I suppose I can continue the act…

Stepping back, maybe it really doesn’t get easier. I find comfort in purpose. I want the challenge of building something beautiful and interconnected and extensible across the continents I have found home and love in. I used to say I wanted consistency and systems, and realize that this is the way of solving that. I want a home with a ceiling as high as we have collectively chosen, welcoming all the old and new and all who have yet to come under it.

this was written in one sitting and not proofread


julie says:

i really love this blog post — there’s a lot of stuff here that i’ve also been thinking about lately. i’ve noticed that life transition points tend to have this effect, prompt more introspection beyond the usual.

i’m not sure where to start, but i think i’m mainly replying because i know how it feels to lay it all bare on the internet, to dump some thoughts into a nebulous void and hope they resonate with someone, somewhere, somehow. i’m glad that some of us are brave enough to be vulnerable in the presence of strangers (and acquaintances, which is even harder sometimes!).

having also stumbled through circles of entrepreneurial/startup types, creative technologists who’ve divorced their art from care, and well-meaning collectives clumsily fighting for justice, i’ve struggled to figure out where i fit in, which paths i want to follow. these past few years i’ve also come to realize that i feel most fulfilled when my work is grounded in the well-being of local communities. but there’s a difficulty in building local structures of care when life feels so transient, and i feel so nomadic, shuffling from place to place for three months at a time… i think that, when i reach the point that you have now — settled into a physical place where i can plant some permanent roots — i will also feel firmly grounded enough to properly search for my own ceilings. thank you for helping me search in advance.

Kevin says:

“being truthful and myself after a certain degree made it significantly easier to build the life I had wanted; what I had needed came to me with more clarity, the right people and experiences became self-selecting.”

it’s true

[…] I will always find places eventually and that this is an intentional, continuous act. I know about settling and think about it without any absolution or defeat, but as an important act of dwelling that […]

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