Tuesday, December 1, 2020
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Time and the road we are on

I have come to terms that the world I once knew—that carefree, brutally nuanced yet distinctly unafraid, sun-kissed planet—is no more.

I didn’t see it coming. It’s as if some ancient alien circulated a memo while I was out for a cig. I didn’t notice the creeping changes till they slapped me in the face.

I couldn’t have felt any sadder. True, the days of my youth—from the howling ‘60s to the messed-up ‘80s—was out of line for the most part, morally bankrupt and coarse at the edges, buck-naked under moonlight, wild yet naïve at the very core, choking on tobacco, and several times on the brink of annihilation, or worse, a three-day hangover.

But it was the life I was born into, ergo the only life I knew. Even the air back then was wet with gin and pomelo, the chilled beers, and anger and rage and awakenings. Political, spiritual and feminist awakenings, to be exact.

Anything that fizzed with excitement found cohesion in the phrase, “Let’s try this.”

Not only was it pleasantly deviant, there was something to it that suggested of the paranormal. Spiritual, as the politically correct term went nowadays. It was an otherworldly sort of gig. Exactly the experience most people thought they lacked and could obtain by trying everything new regardless of the presence, or otherwise, of God or devil in it.

‘New’ stood for everything but cliché. For many, new was all things that hinted of rebellion, dissent against the status quo. People opposed all things bland and ordinary. And old.

From anything for free under the soda bottle cap to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, rock music, jazz and the blues, new age claptraps, compounded by myriad ‘religious’ experiences, bogus or real, these were all fair game. Life had become, to many, a kind of laboratory, a fail-if-you-must-but-get-up-on-your-feet experiment on the dangerous and the macabre, cramped in a time frame no longer than, perhaps, 40 years.

Many died young. Many died because they chose to. Those who lived long enough to see their children reach their teens were only too happy to survive the catastrophe which was life in the era of the hippies. But this was prior to all that hullabaloo we call war on drugs.

People were communal. Suffice it to say that we enjoyed each other’s company. A day consisted of encountering another human being, not via the pixel but in the flesh. People met, shook hands, exchanged gifts, patted each other in the back, collected stamps and rubber bands, marbles and memories, hugged and partied, loved and made love, flirted freely, laughed out loud, smoked, sang, danced, cried and wept openly, secretly, discreetly, to the joy and melancholy of everyone within eavesdropping distance.

For people scarred by distance, writing hand-written letters were the thing: we bought postcards, greeting cards from bookstore racks, and sent them to loved ones—perfumed, stamped, and signed. The hand-written note wrought an unspoken intimacy between couples and lovers, its twirls and strokes veiling emotions long interred in silence. A love letter back then would cost a suitor a mere fifty pesos, depending on whose poetry was to be plagiarized and made one’s own.

Love, and longing, justified all crimes.

Back then people were what you’d expect them to be—human. Flaws and all. They craved for interaction, conversation, even copulation on those terribly cold nights. ‘Make love, not war’ was a battle cry. The warmth of a human touch, the brush of skin on skin. Words carried with them the breath of the speaker, that gentle squint of the eyes when people smile, and his or her chosen eau de toilette or eau de parfum that day.

New days were celebrated with hot java, homemade sweets, or that sought-after chilled San Miguel beer at night. Conversations lasted till the wee hours, often outshone by the long, well-nigh impossible-to-break goodbyes. This is why sleepovers were quite the fad.

These weren’t bad things, but actual encounters one can look forward to each day without fearing another’s politically correct opinion of it.

Curiosity was a quality of the human genus, nay, the human spirit—not folly or inanity, not political correctness, not the absurdity that has somewhat become every person’s shadow these days.

A spade was never anything but a spade. A drunk was a drunk, a thief a thief, and never once did we consider it the fault in our parents’ stars for what the child would become. Human free agency was a thing to bank on regardless of the harsh conditions most people found themselves in while growing up. We knew our responsibility to ourselves, our families, and society at large.

Life was a sequence of real moments, of mornings and evenings dripping hot and cold in the face, not fifty-word Twitter comments or posts or memes. The next person wasn’t a photograph but a living, breathing, coughing, sneezing, hardly catatonic and sometimes totally laughable creature of the senses. As for profile pictures, these were framed and hung on real concrete or wooden walls and hardly stood as one’s brief yet pretentious biographical note.

People confronted pain and loss not as the tragedy that they were, but as hurdles one must overcome through a variety of ways: anger and rage, or better yet patience and a level of stamina free of the intrusion of the powerful and gullible.

Believe me, to be lynched back then was to totally give up one’s right to reply.

As for poverty, it never stopped the poor from extending a helping hand to those who were either hungry or equally destitute. I was fortunate to have seen the day when Filipinos were generous with their food and clothes, with the space in their homes despite the obvious dearth. People gave freely of their means and accepted from others without the slightest hint of entitlement.

We struck a balance between minding one’s business and being our brother’s keepers. As dark as some days may have been at times, still people opened up and trusted the stranger. A bulb of garlic, or a bowl of rice sitting on another’s table was everyone’s bowl of rice. All one had to do was ask.

While many were scarcely able to lift themselves from the poverty of their ways, no one doubted that life can be magical. Hope then was as real as the boy- or girl-next-door, and humanity’s weaknesses and strengths played a huge part in hope’s realization. Death, in fact, stood as the family’s chance at a reunion, of sharing a meal, or just catching up on old times.

This was roughly a mere century ago. Life was simple back then, free of the convolutions of technological breakthroughs and the ramblings of artificial intelligence. Genius was genius, and you sitting with a book and a bottle of Coca-Cola with life passing you by unnoticed wasn’t a thing to marvel at. It was everyday fare, like those much-awaited reruns on television.

Information was cut and dry. There was little, if at all, blurring of lines. Newspapers told the reader which story hogged the banner and which fell on second page. People who listened to radio can tell between news and fictional drama. We love to entertain as much as to be entertained with scantly the tearjerkers we find in some news websites nowadays.

No crossing of boundaries: reporters reported, opinion-makers shaped public discourse, and the dinner table, irrespective of the day’s cheap fodder and grub, was everything a town hall meeting ought to be: rich in human exchanges. People respected each other’s opinions regardless of their limitations.

Martial law changed all that in the early 1970s. Our childlike wonder was turned into the rage and curiosity of juvenile delinquents out on a predatory campaign for what to break, hurt and destroy. The silence that was to follow the streak of murders only helped in obscuring the trail of blood which stained our flooded streets.

The Cold War did little to relieve us of the growing fears. People hardly saw through the surface of controversial issues, let alone their deeper significances to daily life. Most went about their way by the same token as a calamity-stricken high-wire act complete with the absence of any safety nets.

Times changed drastically and quite without warning. It was as if all of a sudden we grew up without the benefit of elderly guidance. We began to filch what we wanted with no sense ofcosts; worse, these were done with impunity and a twisted sense of entitlement.

Technological advancements in recent years helped little in alleviating the frustration. What was supposed to connect us—cellular phones, social media, the internet—severed us from each other all the more.

We hand-picked the latest banded cellular phone models instead of hand-picking friends. In place of a trip to the movie house with classmates or family, we opted for online streaming in solitary confinement.

We move along life’s roads by our lonesome, scantly realizing the need for human warmth and interaction. It is fair enough that we can move, but only to that spot where we can get an internet signal. To hell if it’s an empty parking lot.

Our downhill trajectory was complete.

I miss the old days. Days when a suitor of meagre means must line up for a phone call at a sari-sari store, or risk dangling on the estribo of a Sarao or Malagueña jeepney for a ride to school. Days when, as a rule, taxi drivers were polite, sometimes even chivalrous, and not race car pilots on intravenous Fentanyl. Days when a 12oz. bottle of Sarsi or family-size Coca-Cola or case of beer hardly cost a day’s wage. Days which begin and end rather nonchalantly until something untoward happens and everyone reaches out to help.

There’s no turning back the clock. Time, with all its linear sophistication, cannot but move forward. How Filipinos take on the challenge of a future no less bleak and menacing is something to see.

I have not given up hope, regardless of the rampant political shenanigans we face each day. Because if there is something I’ve seen in all of 54 years, it is this: the Filipino is not one to give up hope without a fight. This lends to both our charm and ultimate survival, considering what we have been through.

From natural calamities to wars, revolutions to the daily battle against crime, and every manmade hazard which threatens our existence—nonetheless the tyrants who had tried but failed to rule over us with impunity—the Filipino took the blows. We fought our way through the gauntlet numerous times. Been there, done that.

Frail and poor as we are, Filipinos may never really be able to foretell our future. Yet we have learned to work with our backs at the sun and hands in the mud. We hope for nothing but the coming of a new day tomorrow.

This, therefore, stands as our greatest challenge in order to realize that hope: that we can carve the road ahead with memory as our tool.

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