THE SAFEST thing to do is to stand still. Why can’t we?
Commuting from Quezon to Parañaque just as all offices disgorged workers before the long weekend, I had time to reflect while clinging to the MRT handrail. While Edsa below looked like a bright-hued sludge of unmoving vehicles, the MRT crawled and stalled from its human burden.
Before my arm broke from hanging on, I reached my station. Barreling through with two totes heavy with books and academic detritus, I heard a man speak in beloved Cebuano: “Mo-uli na lang ko sa akong probinsya, oy.”
Perhaps it was hearing the shared sentiment of wanting to go home or the Bisdak expression, “oy,” seasoning the declaration with a mixture of exasperation and chagrin, I found myself tearing up.
In 10 months of commuting in this place, I’ve never lost my footing, stumbled in the interminable steps, fallen prey to thieves, charlatans or the criminally gifted. Yet, here I was, in the middle of rush hour of a very, very long weekend, sniffling in the bowels of the MRT. Recipe for disaster.
When I emerged later to take deep lungfuls of the carbon monoxide- and ancient urine-flavored toxic brew that stands for air in this city, I retrieved the train of my reflection: why don’t we stay still?
I still didn’t find the answer to this question when I was somewhere in a line of cars going nowhere in the mass exodus out of the city on Holy Thursday. Given freedom from routine and chores, many opt to do something, go somewhere, leave the familiar. Do we see through the illusion? We compete for parking space, a table during dining rush hours, the search for novelty to brag about when we go back to racing in the old tracks come 8 a.m. on Monday.
During a jeepney ride, I overheard two graduate students discuss travel plans. One of the ladies grumbled about the steep rates of plane fare to a popular beach destination. Her companion wondered if it wasn’t better to drive to a nearby province, which had some good beaches. Her friend protested: “Then it wouldn’t be a vacation (if the destination was just nearby).”
While packing to stay within my 15 kilos of check-in luggage, I had difficulty deciding which books to bring home. Finally, I made space for four titles, among the notebooks and “pasalubong” for my sons: Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow,” “The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English from 1900 to the Present,” and N.V.M. Gonzalez’s “The Bread of Salt and Other Stories”.
As with John Updike’s academia, I had difficulty focusing on Franzen’s suburbia but I had sworn to finish it. The Likhaan Anthology is a college textbook edited by Gémino Abad, who was my professor in last semester’s elective class on poetics. I had passed all my class requirements, but the subject of poetics was not yet done with me.
In the preface of his collection of short stories, Gonzalez wrote about arriving in Santa Barbara, Caifornia “to begin what would become a long sojourn in America”:
“… as a hedge against the future I had brought along several short stories, two novels, and various scraps of writing.”
Narrative Paradigm Theory holds that all humans are born to tell stories. We tell them “as a hedge against the future.” We tell stories to try to fix the future into the knowable. Our stories tell us that much of what happened still remains unknowable.
My copy of Pamuk is secondhand. It is battered from being always in my tote, a guilty indulgence I retreat to when academia become too unreal. In “Snow,” a poet tries to become a journalist in investigating the epidemic of suicide among young women forbidden to wear a veil.
He returns to the hometown he left to avoid political persecution. He picks up awkwardly the blunt-edged tools of journalism. He tries to rekindle an old love. In bartering the safety of his literary niche in the civilized West for a sentimental journey back to home, duty and love, the poet realizes how standing still is dying to oneself:
“When we undertake the pilgrimage, it’s just not to escape the tyranny at home but also to reach to the depths of our souls. The day arrives when the guilty must return to save those who could not find the courage to leave.”
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 31, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column