F. Sionil Jose at 90: Remarks for a Dear Friend.

An Unusual Birthday Cake

A few weeks ago I was asked to prepare remarks for Manong Frankie’s 90th birthday. A day after having said my piece, I still have to pinch myself and ask if that really happened. Here is the speech as I recall it–I’ve also added things I should have said but missed. Part of me regrets not having typed this all out. I don’t often speak extemporaneously but preparing for this was difficult. How does one capture the essence of a man and his impact on one’s life in three minutes tops? How do I to talk about the books and the way his words have sparked and sealed my love for my motherland? I can’t do it all in one speech–but if you catch me somewhere, somehow, I will tell you everything and there is so much to tell.

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December 3, 2014, Cultural Center of the Philippines

Ten years ago, I would have been happy just to read you but tonight, allow me to honor you. You are ahead of me by 64 years, a lifetime in itself! You are one of my dearest friends and I have only gratefulness to share.

I am grateful to a certain Miguel, who, when we were both sophomores in high school, thought it sophisticated to read aloud lines from your book, Platinum. This was how I discovered you. He was trying to woo me but alas, I ended up with you instead, Manong.

I am grateful to the Jose family. If it’s true that your father writes from life then he’s not only shared his own life but yours in the many pages of his work. You form part and parcel of the Filipino story–the one your father likes to tell–and I can only imagine what this must have cost you by way of privacy and time with him. You’ve given us so much and though your family is big by comparison, I appreciate feeling like the youngest daughter. Your warmth and love encourages that.

I am grateful to Tita Tessie who is patient beyond compare. You (Manong) have grown old and difficult, often saying things you should never say in public for fear of losing friends–but just look at this crowd gathered here tonight, Manong.

We’re all here to celebrate you.

If there’s one thing you’ve taught me by your own example, it’s that a writer’s integrity is paramount.

I am grateful to you. You are ahead of me by 64 years and there is very little by way of experience that binds us but the time you give young writers like me, the way you listen, the effort you take to break bread with us and do as friends do–that’s what I cherish.

I can spend the next twenty years of my life explaining how deeply your words and your friendship has meant to me but I know you’ll have none of that. You’d rather I find my own voice and write. So I will.

But let me just say, and I’ll end with this: It’s difficult to be young these days and find reason to love one’s country. It’s lonelier still to love it because so few really do–and this is why our friendship means the most to me. So many of our leaders have let us down and even in the realm of literature and art, we are not spared from betrayal. But I just want you to know–you haven’t let me down. You haven’t let me down.

Happy birthday, Manong.

Blowing his candles.One last thing. This isn’t the first time I’ve celebrated him. Here’s an excerpt from an article I did for Rogue Magazine a year ago:

I have been in and out of Solidaridad many times over the past years. I keep the tradition of going in the afternoon and staying as long as Mang Frankie will allow my curiosity. We’ve shared many differences in opinion and though neither of us backs down, the steam we generate only triggers more pressing and vital questions. In the middle of a tirade against our constant forgetfulness, I watch as one of the most brilliant Filipino savants devours a doughnut. Harsh words are then tempered by the sugar that forms on his lips and immediately, I am endeared to this old man who despite his age still relishes the company of someone equally as stubborn, but less informed.

Civility.

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Two guys share a smoke from a distance. They quickly toss the butts away when I pass them. Proof yet again that the most civilized people I know are often dirt poor, hungry, pushed by society into being monstrous. “There’s no dignity in being poor.” This debate has been running between me and an octogenarian for years now. He tells me I’m giving excuses, trying to look for silver linings to prettify a picture, to contain the objective reality. I am about to concede. Perhaps he is right. But isn’t this nice? Sharing a smoke with a friend, the last bastion of civility in fantastic conditions.

In Defense of Alienation: The Road to Freedom.

Dear Don,

Your article on yesterday’s Youngblood column really captivated me. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve referred to you in the familiar, as opposed to the formal. Your words were once mine and so I feel a deep sense of recognition–mine, of your current disposition, and yours, of what mine used to be. I appreciate your honestly and your openness to questions. These are foundations one must nurture to build a spine to tread a course that’s uniquely your own. I hear that in your writing and the sound is sweet, similar to the sound of a flowing creek in the mountainside.

Your desire for freedom, for the triumph of good over the many injustices that plague our fellow men and women really moves me. It’s the world’s way of saying that sometimes we do not have to be like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world solely on our shoulders. I am selfish at times and I bear it forgetting that there are others, like you, who share this anxiety, this dis-ease over the way things are. In your own essay of what you know to be (un)freedom, I hear you ask, sometimes angrily (and rightfully so): WHY? Why must things be the way they are? Why are we so complacent when we could all be asking the same of the world? I hear in your voice the alienation that Marx so clearly identified and though his words have been used and abused so callously, I ask that you trust what you’ve felt yourself. Ignore, for a moment, the din of critics, of our teachers, of theories and books–even of our friends who might call us out on being so predictable. In the quiet room of your mind, allow yourself the feeling of being alone, of being alien–to others–but never to yourself. Nurture what the poet Rainer Rilke calls, solitude.

In this choice of ours to care so much and to hold so firmly to our convictions, we will often need the gifts afforded by our solitude. Many will criticize you for your questioning and regard you as a gadfly without even giving you the courtesy of a question as a premise for a conversation. Already you are being told that your youth and inexperience do not qualify you to come to these conclusions.

You are being told that the same academic institution that gave you the freedom of choice, to think or not to think, lacked in educating you for “the real world.”  The same people whose taxes funded your education now doubt the gifts they’ve endowed you with. Really? Well. Thousands of students pass through those academic halls year-in and year-out. How many of them have given a thought to their lives? How many of them have probed beyond the necessary yet mundane realities of their days? I am not even asking how many of them have thought of the real value of being young and Filipino in a country like ours. I am only curious to know if the multitude has chosen to think, just THINK, as you clearly have.

They’ve asked you to learn the ropes of life so you can fix institutions, like UP, and make them run better, then they close by counselling you against giving excuses. I agree, you must never dish those out. We have no room in our hungry, burning bellies, for excuses–so do not listen to theirs, no matter how seemingly well-meaning they are. It is the folly of the elders who perceive themselves wise to tell the young that they must fix what they have left broken. Learn early on to distinguish between the truly wise and the mediocre.

Your responsibility, as a student, is to get an education. So get one. Learn as much as you can from your professors who are generous to share their knowledge, their reading lists, their own musings. But beware of their dogmas. We all have them but it is not our place as teachers to replicate them into sweaters for you to wear until they become second skin. They are for you to try on, to cut, and form into other things. Discard them completely if they do not answer what calls to you in the dead of night. Relish the feel of ideas coming over you when you least expect it. Enjoy the pleasures of good books and find, for your own sanity, a pool of friends to speak with about everything and nothing. Bounce off each other extremes of trivial, noteworthy, and sacrilegious over good music, cheap oily food, and long nights spent asking–always, asking–“WHY?”

For each of our failings, we will be judged according to our alma maters. The critics will deem our schools lacking, catering only to the few, coddling the elite. Those who cry out in our defense will do so with the added pinch of nostalgia, claiming these institutions are not what they were in some heyday of yore. Right.

Our critics ask the university to find you employment. They consider your education only as good as the value that society gives you in accordance with your pay-check. Here you can already learn much about our country. The value of an education in the Philippines is so cheap and shallow, at least until it earns you higher figures.

Grow up or grow bitter? What kind of life is this that narrows choices down this way? It’s as if you’re being asked to grow familiar with your anxiety and certain of regret. Please, I implore you, do not pay heed to these commands just yet. Instead, listen. Listen because even the oldest, most jaded, most cynical, of our people still harbour hopes and it is our responsibility to acknowledge them. They will not always admit this, of course, but if you allow them to respond to earnest questions, they will betray their own self-image and remember what it was that once gave them a spring in their step. This, my friend, is the true gift both generations give to one another. It is the privilege of both the old and the young–a shared right of passage that allows both to bloom, one into the grace of old age and the other into the fertile grounded-ness of the present.

You will need to apply the praxis you speak of because it is the only way to do justice to all our shared hopes and visions. Praxis will allow you to test the certainty of theory against the uncertainty of the world. Our words in the academe are our only economy and grounding them on substance is what ensures the integrity of our institutions. This is not blind allegiance to the academy but rather, a bold acceptance of the scholarly life–however difficult it may be to live our questions.

Everyone thinks those who don’t do, teach or study, as you and I have chosen. They may be wrong but if our output isn’t commensurate to the task of expanding knowledge and exploring the depths of meaning, then we are just as they say we are.

In practice, you will enjoy the chance to try different things. There will be an option to fail and I hope you do, preferably on a magnanimous scale that shakes you out of your stupor, out of your comfort. If it breaks you completely, you will have defined “struggle,” overcome it, and you’ll no longer accept it for it’s own sake.

You will triumph in the end because you will still be YOU–you with the questions, the one who nags this country back to its senses. I know you will succeed.

In the meantime, thank you for this rare chance at authenticity. You’ve given me much to think of and aspire to. Here’s hoping our path’s cross one day and when they do, I hope the road finds us both a step closer to freedom.

yours,

Nash

A Place to Dwell.

It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia. – No Time to Think by Kate Murphy for the NYT.

It’s really true, you know. I fail at life more times than I would like but I guess the remainder of the year ought to be spent doing right by those I’ve failed, including myself.

I was sitting in a cab today trying to stay alert on the way to a friend’s house. I was calculating the many ways this ride could go wrong and figuring out what I could do in case something, anything, happens. The recent spike in criminality that’s been all over the news has done much to feed my already fattened anxieties. Yet, despite my insistence on being present, I found myself drafting an essay on lost time, second chances, and the necessity of making mistakes. I promised myself that I would find the time to write it all down but this seems to be one promise I keep breaking just because it’s so hard to sit with one’s self and deal.

Ever since I started working for government again, I put up a wall between myself and the world and chose to write my observations elsewhere. There’s a market out there that feeds on insecurity and mistakes genuine questions for ineptitude in government service, so I figured, why risk being open and honest about work? Since social networking has hastened both the flow of information and stupidity, I worried about how my own curiosity might trigger a backlash causing people to criticize what I know they don’t understand.

But isn’t that condescension, too? Let me try not to worry so much about my audience and remember, instead, a time when I believed in my readers–because I know you are all wise. You will see past my petty anxiety and understand what I’m trying to say.

Two hours into a Monday I am already dreading the thought of drafting my weekly task list. It’s a mix of things I’ve been putting off, things I have to get a hold of, and things I cannot know yet because they will surprise me. Something will always come up.

I am lucky this time to work with an uncanny bunch of believers. I trust that they are good people who genuinely work because they know it’s a mission, it’s a vocation. But then why is there still that itch to keep questions in mind? Why don’t I sleep soundly knowing all of this?

I feel all of this overwhelms me because I don’t write honestly anymore. So I return to the original purpose of keeping this site–apart from telling stories. I’m compelled to write about my experiences because they unsettle me and while I know I can’t write my way to solutions, it does a great deal to just get this load off my chest.

Quickening.

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The sky over the sea in Dauis, Bohol.

The pace of travel has quickened so much that I am unable to slow down and compose myself. There is so much joy passing through me and each day unravels itself like a gift.

I’m in an airport again, waiting to get home. There will be time on the flight for composure and writing.

This? This is just proof of life–because I miss, most of all, writing for me.

Prudence.

Climbing Advice.Great advice from climbers at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. At times, I feel my work–and the adventures I tend to find myself having–to be akin to climbing mountains.

It’s not enough that we are courageous. Exercising prudence matters too.

Embarking on another long journey. Hope this time I might be prepared as I was when I was in India–at least to handle what might come.

What is Gained in the Telling.

I submitted this piece to the Iligan National Writer’s Workshop–they responded positively and I should have been on a plane today, setting off to learn at the feet of writers whose words give meaning and voice to the regions of the Philippines. Unfortunately, the road couldn’t lead to Iligan as I am scheduled for a visa interview tomorrow.

My heart’s a bit broken over this. Writing means a lot to me and this week would have been a great opportunity to improve my craft. But anyway, there will be other opportunities.

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What is Gained in the Telling.

Ti nalaka ti pannakasapulna, nalaka met ti pannakapukawna.
What is easily acquired is easily lost.

The language poured into me without even a sieve between us.

My grandmother, tugging at my arms, would lead me through the maze of the Baguio Public Market. We would go from dark, dingy alleys to the bright luminescence of the butcher’s strip, globes of incandescent lamps hanging over chunks of meat. I watched the sweat trickle down from their faces. Their eyes glimmered in recognition of my grandmother, who at five feet tall maintained her poise and lady-like demeanor. She would smile knowingly at them triggering a collective gesture of meat sorting. They knew which cuts she would need to make her month-lasting adobo, a dish my sisters and I loved and feared at the same time. How long could meat really last—vinegar or no? At some point in my childhood, when I was still young enough to allow fantasy to take over reason, I courted the possibility that my grandmother had employed magic in her kitchen. We were by no means affluent yet we never ran out of food. The refrigerator was always bursting at the seams, jars of jam and butter struggling to keep the door ajar.

Back at the market, the smell of day-butchered pig wafted in the air. I was too young to be self-conscious but old enough to know how embarrassed my grandmother would be if I spat or vomited on account of it. There would be none of that. If you are old enough to go to the market, an accomplice of the Lady of the House, then the nonsense of nausea is dealt with in silence. I swallowed to keep from throwing up and made a nary a sound for fear of breakfast sputtering out along with my words.

So, I learned to listen. The Iloko words my grandmother used to conduct her business didn’t easily arrest me, at first. These were exigencies of living in Benguet. English could not be the sole currency in this economy of words because a lot of those who spoke it were no longer the tillers of the land. The missionaries had come to preach the Good Word and under their tutelage, the local Kankana-ey and vernacular Iloko, were submerged in a bigger pool of language, English defining the perimeter and slowly moving into the heart of the people’s being. It was faith after all that the Catholics preached—faith to conquer, to banish the savage. There was some salvation being preached here but my grandmother knew that nothing, not even God, could save a farmer from the lowlands where nothing of value grew. Their English might have rooted itself deeply in their expression but it could not beat the indigenous wisdom of knowing the planting season like someone who had lived it.

Life within the language is also worth noting. I knew the words only passively and I struggled to forget them. Gentle as my grandmother might have been in her use of the language to acquire goods, my mother was not so. She said so few things in that tongue but her words captured me, locked me in submission. I knew the dragon in her when she said her piece in Iloko.

“Agtalna kan.”

Roughly translated, the phrase commands the listener to have peace—but when voiced by an angry mother to quell my own childish rebelliousness, I knew I could not have any. I carried the weight of her words on my shoulders for as long as I could remember. I gained no interest in learning to say things in the language that oppressed me as a child. I feared that inhabiting it might render me oppressive, too. Who would want to pass that on? The fear, the anxiety, the secret bond between mother and child that wounds, that breaks.

She stopped using that tongue in my adolescence. Perhaps she thought I had outgrown the need to be told off. Naturally, I hadn’t but it relieved me to not be reprimanded in public, in this language or another.

When my grandmother died, I was all of eighteen. Only now made aware of the value of a regional language, of a vocabulary that colored my growing years. When she was cremated, I worried that the words burned with her. I was saddened to see the language carried over to the grave.

At least I thought this was the end.

Lately, I have been visiting the mountains in search of butchers who might know my kind of meat from others. They are few and far between but once they slice the meat, partitioning the animal and designating which of its parts I must claim, I surprise them with conversation. They are baffled at first, watching someone with fair skin speak a tongue so seemingly foreign but also lived in, accent and all. I am invited for gin in their homes. The spirits leap out of glasses in homage to those that have gone before us.

In between drinks they tell elaborate tales in Iloko and I am astonished by my comprehension. I have never heard some of these words before but they speak to a side of me I have never really attempted to know.

What is easily acquired is easily lost.