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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

entry arrow12:07 PM | Notes From the Christ Year

There was a period of my life, shortly after I turned 33, that I was utterly convinced that I was not going to live through to my next birthday.

That inexplicable sureness for finite mortality was like being encased in an iron-clad grip, or like clutching the sharp edge of a knife. It was all over my heart, all over my head—like an existential Damocles’ sword. The profound certainty cut so deep that there were moments (which broke through little things, such as walking to school or riding at the back with the driver of a tricycle) that I would just secretly break down and cry. The whole thing did not end up in wailing, thank God. It was all done in furtiveness, the tears—its onset already surprising—quickly wiped away by the sleeve of my shirt. And then there would be that strange ringing deep within that spoke volumes, but in a language that I could not quite get…

I frankly did not know what I was crying for, except perhaps this: a terrible knowledge that all of my life was ending soon, and I felt as if I had nothing to show for it. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Nobody, of course, knew this, not even my closest friends. Growing older, one learns sometimes to don a mask of normalcy to counterbalance the surging vertigo of questions that race through our heads. Outwardly, I was the same fellow with the old sureness in his gait. I looked normal. I did normal things. I went about from day to day in the most normal of motions—or at least I tried. Life can easily become a performance, and when you believe enough that you are doing the proper gestures just right, no one questions anything. I would say “Good morning, So-and-so!” with the usual bright smile, and I would get the same greeting in return, engage in harmless small talk, and move on.

And so on. And so forth.

Then again, growing older, one also learns this surprising fact: nobody else really cares that much for drama except their very own. We are our own rapt audience. Life is thus the perfect closet in which to unfurl the teleserye madness of all our existences. (Unless, of course, you’re in Facebook, and the concentrated awareness of your status updates make your drama a little bit more accessible to the rest of the world.)

I did not know, of course, how I was going to die, although I certainly entertained (what a strange word to use) various possibilities of the end, which I will not even attempt to enumerate or mention, at the risk of making this whole essay sound too morbid for Christmas time. This essay is supposed to be about life-affirming resurrection, anyway.

I thought there might be Notes from this turbulent, beautiful thirty-third year, to explain all these. Scanning quickly through my blog, I chance upon this entry from one of those days that perfectly captured the dark aspects of the experience: “I don’t wish for anyone the dark days. But they happen. For me they’re constant visitors. Sometimes I fly right through them like a plane would through turbulence, but sometimes they linger like a dark lover. I pinch myself endlessly to break free from its ugly embrace, but it doesn’t of course leave at my bidding, and all I have left really is skin pinched to raw redness. I always find my dark days after especially hectic—or joyful—episodes in my life. They come without fail. I’d be particularly busy working on some projects for days on end, and when I’d be finally done, there would be that huge sense of relief, followed immediately by a sudden, screaming panic. What now? I’d ask myself. And then the dark would come to consume me. So, of course, after those beautiful early summer days spent in Baguio and Sagada, and then after that hectic week trying to complete those stories for a certain contest, I sensed myself withdrawing from the world, suddenly feeling very sick (really, really sick), suddenly feeling very helpless. And sad. So I took my meds. I deposited my cellphone in a secret place. I watched old Audrey Hepburn movies. I caught all the episodes of the last season of Lost, watching everything from first to last, nonstop. I commiserated with the wishy-washy weather. I Facebooked endlessly, until it, too, became a blur. I surfed all the cable channels—my television was on 24 hours a day for several days straight—and sank deeper into my bed. I sang John Barrowman songs. I tried reading, but couldn’t finish anything. I had my meals delivered to my pad. I watched my hamsters go round and round in their wheels. I slept for the most part, endlessly praying that the pain, both physical and emotional, would go away. It’s a Friday, and there are some glimmers in the distance, so here’s wishing me... something. God? Luck? Happy days? A great cup of coffee?”

But it wasn’t, of course, always that grim. There were long periods of glimmer as well.

From another entry, I wrote this: “I just came off a wonderful lunch with my mother in Royal Suites Inn, together with my brother Dennis Carmelo and his lovely family for Mother’s Day—and now I’m having a cup of the best coffee in Negros Oriental, in La Residencia’s Don Atilano, enjoying free wifi while listening to the violin music of Itzhak Perlman playing his series on evocative film scores. I’m staring out the bay windows of the cafe onto the blue of Tañon Strait. It’s a beautiful and sunny Sunday, and I am feeling that all is right in the world. And why wouldn’t it be? I think of yesterday, which I spent in Antulang Beach Resort, with writers from the National Writers Workshop (courtesy of the wonderful Annabelle Lee-Adriano). After a cruise around Tambobo Bay and a great lunch, I retired to my own private villa (complete with its own swimming pool) on the cliffside that has a commanding view of the blue waters—a sight that practically lures you into going buff without a care in the world. (And I, ehem, did.) After napping and swimming, I was listening to easy music while staring out into the blue in Villa Alamanda, and the thought came to me: ‘This is really a wonderful life I’m having. I really can’t complain about anything anymore.’ If you ask the universe nicely enough, it does give you what your heart desires. I remember exactly a year ago when, on top of a sacred Sagada hill, the view of the Cordillera mountains and the gravity of the blue infinity beyond them unexpectedly made me weep in prayer—and that was when I had first asked the universe for a different reality. I felt I needed change—but of what kind, I had no definite idea then. Still, I remember praying hard on top of that hill. Only lately have I realized that most of what I prayed for in Sagada have actually been answered in the past few months…. I have a new bond with my family that is warm and full of comedy. I have the company of great friends, old and new—and our times together, spent in intimate hours in cafes and dance floors and beaches, are deeper and more heartfelt. I have found a new reservoir of energy, and physically, I have never felt or looked better. I have a life that is a whirlwind of marvelous things. I can taste a future that I can almost bite into for sheer deliciousness. Most of all, I feel I am making the right decisions, and I am definitely bolder, and less hesitant to call a spade a spade, and to call out bullshit when needed. It’s a completely different life—and one I am actually still adjusting into. And I am genuinely, genuinely happy.”

Dark and light. In those hues life becomes. One might notice of course that I mention Sagada both times. There is a reason for that: that sacred quiet spot in the northern mountains became the focal point—the fountainhead, if one must say—of the whole internal journey. Because once, in the summer of my 33rd year, I sought out the solitude of that place, and prayed for direction, just as I described above.

I am still living through those directions, taking each bump as a challenge and each smooth stretch a delight. What a year it has been, beautiful in its inconstancy.

Still, I must deny it was some form of manic depression. Then again, maybe it was. (Who knows these things, anyway… I am not a psychologist.) But its irregularities were what made it a fascinating period, because underneath all that uncharted paroxysm of existentialism and vague notions of the end, I knew there was a positive churning somewhere. Let’s call it birthing pangs—understandably painful to go through, but ultimately yielding creation. Let me give you a metaphor. It was like being a caterpillar in a cocoon. Picture that. There is death and struggle in that tango of a creature in restless sleep, its biology changing in the ticking hours, until finally, changed at the appropriate time, it makes one final and desperate struggle to get through the matting that contains it, to become something else, something entirely new—with wings. The struggle through the confines of the cocoon, of course, is what gives the butterfly’s wings its beautiful sheen. (See? I told you it won’t be that morbid.)

It was a fertile period full of stories. And growing up.

A friend of mine—an accomplished visual artist by the name of Ces Uhing—first gave the turbulence a name. We were in Sugar Beach last summer, and during the lull of a lazy afternoon in a hut within Driftwood Resort, we talked about how our year has been. And I finally told someone about my fixation with mortality, and how life has been, on the whole, such a wild ride.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“I’m 33,” I replied, not quite knowing what she was getting at.

“My dear,” she said, “you’re living through your Christ year.*”

“My what?”

“Remember, Jesus died at the age of 33.”

“What has that got to do with my life?”

She laughed. “Silly you. Only the most discerning feels through this—this turbulence—when they turn 33. Think of it as a gift. That’s when you start feeling the touches of mortality. It’s dreadful at first, but then that’s when you start really feeling how it is to be alive in this world.”

“Is this true?”

“I remember my own Christ year…,” Ces said. “What a year that was.” So chaotic, so strangely sad, she continued, and yet so brilliantly beautiful. And when you finally get through it, it’s like being born again—like you have a new lease on life. Things become clearer. But of course they seem murky at first, and dark, and forbidding, and confusing. But then they start making sense. And when they do, it becomes such a huge sigh of relief. And life becomes new again.

It is safe to believe that every man is born twice in his life: once when his mother gives birth to him, and once more when he starts taking his place in the order of things in the universe. My thirty-third year was all of that.

Here’s wishing you will have the same dreadful and beautiful reckoning, and finally become.

* The Amateur Scribe describes it as thus: "Apparently this is an important benchmark in a man’s life—presumably because it highlights the moment he stops believing he can walk on water, and realises he is destined to spend the rest of his life nailed to a piece of wood while people chuck stones at him and his mother wails in abject despair at all that unfulfilled promise." Of course, he meant this as comedy. (I hope.)


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