Out of Print

Stillness in Moving

by Mags Ocampo
Photos courtesy of Mags Ocampo
What’s it like to move and start again when the world is out of order?  A creative director shares the slow process of creating a sanctuary from the chaos.

This wasn’t meant to be an alternative form of therapy. I was supposed to make this happen fast: wrangle up twelve of my closest friends, clean this dusty foreclosed fixer-upper of an apartment, and paint every single wall to bring the space back to life. It was only supposed to take five days. I had it planned—being the Virgo that I am—almost down to the hour. There were Excel sheets and internal decks. There was a group chat. There were calendar invites. And then suddenly, the announcement of Metro Manila being placed under  lockdown—on the exact same day I got the keys to the new place.

All my plans flew out the window and I was at a complete loss, feeling paralyzed and confused. I had occupied many spaces growing up; this space being the sixth over the past decade. It would be my last move for a good while so I wanted it to be perfect—or at least for the process of moving to go smoothly. Here was the one thing I had worked so hard for: a space to call my own, a steady home, suddenly kept at arm’s length by health protocols and messy bureaucracy. As that one Regine Velasquez song goes, “so near yet so far.” I spent the next two months anxiously trying to plan around the government’s announcements and mapping out the space obsessively on The Sims 4. My mental health was at an all time low as I found myself stuck in a half-packed shoebox apartment, surrounded by balikbayan boxes and cling wrap.

"It was only supposed to take five days," says Mags Ocampo. But as it turned out the pandemic and subsequent quarantines took out a lot more than just time.
On May 21, a little less than a week after Metro Manila’s quarantine restrictions were slightly eased, I finally made the big move. No twelve friends in tow—just a boyfriend that remained socially distant and two movers I hired to help lug an impossible amount of things up a service elevator. The movers lost my clothing rack; the boyfriend helped me stock up on groceries; and at the end of the day, I was left alone in my new home.

That night, I fell asleep from exhaustion, hardly minding the dust and grime that surrounded me. Like I said, the space was foreclosed when I found it—abandoned for long enough that the toilet was clogged from a lack of use and that the layer of dirt that covered the floor had changed its colour completely. I kept the windows open, aircon-less, and fell asleep in the midst of planning the next day’s deep cleanse.

I woke up at 5 a.m. the following day and cleaned. I cleaned, cleaned, and cleaned some more. I mopped the floors with water then bleach then water again—finally revealing the warmer tone of the original flooring. I wiped down every single shelf thrice. I was determined to finish all this as fast as I could. When the dust had (literally) cleared, what came next was a laundry list of things to do to make the space feel like home. I had dreamt of moving into the unit for so long that, to be honest, finally getting there and seeing the space still pretty much a wreck was disappointing. All things considered, I decided I’d do everything on my own. No contractors, no gaggle of helpful guests. Initially, I planned to take on the decorative process in the same way that I tackled the cleaning: as a set of tasks with fixed deadlines, deeming only the results as important.

But that wasn’t quite how it went down.

"The next two weekends had me spending six hours a day giving my walls a pink faux French wash," writes Mags. "Leave it to me to underestimate the difficulty of a task."

Work started to pick up its pace as the world slowly (but prematurely) reopened. After facing a freelance drought, I had no choice but to accept almost every job offer that landed in my inbox. Zoom calls and emails took up all of my time. I put off personalizing my home and ignored all the deadlines I had set for my space. Life, once again, got in the way and I found myself surrounded by stark white walls and stacks of boxes.

Bad news poured in every single day, and my focusing solely on “being productive” and making ends meet quickly took a toll on me. I was Extremely Online in the way that most of us have been throughout quarantine—glued to Twitter feeds, anxiously waiting for the next nonsensical news bit or exhausting nationwide address. One Saturday, I woke up and I just knew I needed something to distract me from my screen. Knowing that being able to look away was in itself a privilege, I picked up a paintbrush and found myself forming a weekend habit.

“I have a knack for self-criticism but the entire process of painting my walls required me to be kinder to myself. And, well, it felt nice to be self-forgiving.”

The first weekend was dedicated to painting my cabinet. Early on in the planning stage, I had decided on an abstract of swirls inspired by a very ‘70s colour palette. To achieve this, I bought five different cans of paint—to which the kuya behind the Davies counter remarked, “Ang laki naman ng bahay niyo ma’am, marami atang kuwartong pipinturahan?” “Studio lang kuya, makulay lang akong tao,” I smiled tightly. Achieving the wardrobe’s final look took longer than I had thought. Prepping laminate surfaces, apparently, is no easy feat. I burned through five cut-up sheets of sandpaper to achieve enough texture for paint to adhere to. My hands, still warm and tingly from sanding, trembled a little as I applied two coats of primer, waiting about two hours in between each coat. The whole thing took two days to complete with so much of the process involving restless waiting periods. I was so excited to keep moving, to blaze through the process. I had no idea painting would force me to sit down and just wait. Watching paint dry is as long as the saying implies. Three coats and 48 hours later, I had a unique set of closet doors and a renewed sense of patience. It came out imperfectly, with a few wonky lines and a couple of stray paintbrush bristles that got left behind but I felt great seeing it come together in the end. At first, I panicked over these small details. But then I took a step back and relief washed over me. I was ecstatic to have such a unique focal point in my home but I think the bigger takeaway was that I learned to take my time with each step — a luxury in the middle of a pandemic that forces every action to be made in haste and urgency.

While tiresome, Mags says she found certain responsibilities to be a welcome break from staring at an LCD screen for hours on end. "I found myself enjoying each task and openly welcoming any new DIY ideas that would come up," she says.

The next two weekends had me spending six hours a day giving my walls a pink faux French wash—leave it to me to underestimate the difficulty of a task. This French wash involved a lot of trial and error. It was so hard to understand the process that when my boyfriend offered to help out, we almost fought. I found him five minutes later sitting on my sofa, quietly rewatching the tutorial video I had linked him months ago. My own flubbing resulted in the wall under my ledge looking significantly different from the rest of the space because I had done multiple layers of do-overs on top of each other on that plane. I have a knack for self-criticism but the entire process of painting my walls required me to be kinder to myself. And, well, it felt nice to be self-forgiving. That process of gentleness, and singing along to various divas on rotation were what got me through the gruesome double-weekend project.

After months of renovating this once abandoned studio, Mags says she's finally where she want to be. "How odd to be able to take rest from the real world without really leaving the physical space you’re in at all," she says.

In between these major undertakings were mini projects: assembling furniture, making a frame for my air conditioner, tacking magazine pages and professional prints above my dining table, turning my fridge blue, and crafting a headboard. All small breaks from an LCD’s oppressive glow. All refreshing exercises for the mind and body. I found myself enjoying each task and openly welcoming any new DIY ideas that would come up. Like many a millennial, I also took to buying and caring for plants to further spruce up the place. My daydreams were slowly becoming a reality and, for once in my life, I was actually taking my sweet time getting to where I wanted to be. How odd to be able to take rest from the real world without really leaving the physical space you’re in at all. Who knew creating mental pockets could be so freeing? Who knew that one could find stillness in moving?

And though so much has changed in the span of three months, the space continues to be a work-in-progress and a source of solace—both in that there is nowhere else I would rather be and also in that I’m glad that there is still so much left to do. ︎

Mags Ocampo is the creative director of Homeroom Co-op.