"I’ve learned to have good days, as my grandfather must have learned to have them," says the author, writing "from a very tired place." Art by Sam Bumanlag
Culture Spotlight

An open letter to the worried

We live in a world that has wandered into a war, and is now trying to fight its way into safety. Will it do us good to look to the ones who came before us for solace and guidance? By GIAN LAO
ANCX | Jun 14 2020

Reader, 

I wanted to tell you that “everything is going to be fine,” but it just wouldn’t be true. 

Nothing is fine. The Philippines in the 2020s may well be defined by its apocalyptic vocabulary: Pandemic. Quarantine, Isolation, PPEs, Respiratory Droplets, Mass Testing. The “dreaded” second wave. Social distancing. The New Normal. Case Fatality Rate. Old Cases. Fresh cases. Mañanita.  

That’s not counting MECQ, ECQ, GCQ, and the literary masterpiece that is the Extreme Enhanced Community Quarantine. Let’s not forget the non-COVID horsemen of the apocalypse, which includes the Anti-Terrorism Bill, the ABS-CBN shutdown, and the Taal Volcano ashfall. Our nation in 2020 is a body drowning in a dark ocean and our government is our flailing, atrophied limbs. 

I confess that some days I try to be hopeful, but then most days I just feel hopeless. I concede that we have to fight for better, but I also remember Sisyphus, and that gif of some hapless guy trying to sweep the ocean back into the ocean. 

There is a reason I keep mentioning the ocean. I just don’t know what it is. Maybe I am looking for comfort of some sort, something vast to imagine while we’re all enclosed in a smaller space. Perhaps I am thinking of family, many of whom grew up in towns with views of the ocean. “A simpler time,” someone would say, which would be true. But trouble is also simple, isn’t it? Difficult, but simple. Results of a lengthy sequence of failures and an overly complex, corrupt bureaucracy but—at the very core of it—simple.

The author's grandfather, Simeon Lao, as a young man.

I always believed my dad wasn’t raised fairly. Once, he told me about his father waking him up at four in the morning—when it was still dark out—to deliver a package of some sort via bicycle. The provincial roads were unlit, and he wiped out and fell by the roadside, unable to find his bike or the package until daybreak. His father never expressed love or care or tenderness, would leave him the worst parts of the chicken, and punish him physically for playing jackstone with his sister, because it was “a girl’s game.” My father feared his father, and I hated lolo for that. I never met him. He was no one to me—only a man who hurt my dad. 

But one day I just thought: History. 

My grandfather was born in 1903, a few years after the Boxer Rebellion. To him, the Spanish-American War was like the EDSA Revolution to older millennials. That was followed by the Philippine-American War and the U.S. Occupation. In 1914, the first World War broke out. In 1917, the Russian Revolution. In 1918, the Spanish Flu. In 1927, the Chinese Civil War between Mao Zedong’s forces and Chiang Kai Shek’s. In 1941, the Second World War. 

During the Japanese occupation, our family’s home was occupied by Japanese soldiers, and my grandparents had to live in a nearby cave. My lolo built furniture and did general work to make it a habitable cave. A Japanese officer had to come inspect their cave. He told my lola: Your husband did very well with this. 

My father recalls lolo reading the paper during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lolo shook his head, made a disappointed sound, and told himself: “It looks like war again.” 

His world shook by the decade. His entire life he was witness to nations being burned down, rebuilt, and reborn. Wars were declared by old men in suits and fought by the young and able-bodied. Until she died, my lola kept expired chocolates in her cupboard in case war broke out. How much right do I have to question my grandparents for raising their kids to be tough? They did their best. Isn’t that all you can ask from people in extraordinary times? What do I know about raising kids who might one day run into a battlefield? 

Look outside. Isn’t it a battlefield? Isn’t it a world shaking by the decade? Even before the pandemic, climate change was aiming hurricanes at unprecedented targets and sinking entire nations. Less than eighty years after the Second World War, large political factions in multiple countries just decided to forget that Hitler was evil. Here, a drug war has claimed so many lives that estimated death tolls range from 5,000 to 30,000. And now, the Coronavirus. It’s an entire world that has wandered into a war, and is now trying to fight its way into safety.

The stories of the past are outrageous. My grandfather courted my grandmother for ten years before eventually marrying her. He quit smoking by locking himself in a room for a week and binging on candy. Once, caught in a gambling den raid, he jumped from the second floor of the building to evade capture and never gambled again. He sat in prison for seven long years after being redtagged by the Magsaysay government, refusing to pay a bribe like the other businessmen. 

It was his talent. He saw what was in front of him. Cause and effect. Right and wrong. Difficult but simple. He landed in Bicol, and so he began trading Abaca. He liked my grandmother and thus spent a decade pursuing her. He wanted to quit smoking, so he quit. He refused to bribe, so he sat for seven years. It might actually be in uncertain times when the right thing becomes so certain. 

"His world shook by the decade." Simeon Lao in his younger days. Photo courtesy of the author. 

Reader, I am writing you from a very tired place. The act of survival is tiring, more so for many others compared to myself. The act of witnessing a nation struggle is tiring. The act of struggling is tiring. We need rest. If we are blessed with a peaceful day in the midst of all this, there is nothing wrong with enjoying its peace. “If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation,” says poet Jack Gilbert. 

I’ve learned to have good days, as my grandfather must have learned to have them. In the middle of a shaking world, he married the love of his life. With perfect penmanship, he wrote her love letters in Spanish. He had 11 children whom he doubtlessly loved, who became chemists and doctors, lawyers and engineers—imagine all of that coming from one orphaned immigrant. He drank. On a crisp night on a boat, he delivered a speech as a successful local trader and enjoyed the adulation of a small community—which must have been joyful, even if he fell from the boat on the same night and never saw his family again.

There is nothing he can tell me to help deal with the troubles of today, but some days I like to believe I can sense his wisdom in my blood. The fact that we are alive today means our ancestors lived through thousands of years of human civilization—through wars and revolutions, through famines, droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. They are invisible heirlooms—the impulses that ask us to protect the children, the elderly, the weak. The desire to survive. The propensity, as Jack Gilbert says, to risk delight. 

There is nothing he can tell me to deal with the troubles of today, but some days I like to believe I can sense his wisdom in my blood. 

Clearly, I see my lolo through the rose-tinted glass of family history. I never met him, so I can imagine him to be anyone I need, especially these days, when the world is ending over and over again. I can cherry pick my way, as storytellers do, toward his redemption. How he hurt my father could be justified by the traumas of a difficult century. I can gloss over his reverence for Chiang Kai Shek, a mass murderer. I can ignore that he named one of my most loving and harmless uncles after Benito Mussolini. I tell myself that we must understand the different versions of love—love during an era of trouble might look very different from the love we practice today.

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But it doesn’t always have to be that way. 

The fortunate among us will emerge from this difficult year changed. There is no question about whether or not we will carry certain traumas. The question is how much. And the deeper question is: How will we allow this to change us—how we interact with each other, how we vote, how we raise our children? What kind of love will we invent for the world after Covid? I am hoping it is a braver and more welcoming kind, where traumas are overcome with care and affection, where battles are won with toughness but also empathy, where no child will have to wake up to deliver a package at 4 a.m.

This year seems like the beginning of an awful century. I write this as advice not just to you, but to myself as well. This is a message coming from a self on a day that is brighter and more hopeful, sent to a self on a day when we are most tired. If the country today makes you worried, I am glad you exist. We will endure. We will build a better legacy. In the darkness, we will find each other and wait for daybreak. 

 

Sincerely,

 

Photos courtesy of Gian Lao