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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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Sunday, January 18, 2015

entry arrow12:59 AM | What Makes You Stay

We measure our lives in years. There is no getting away from that cultural given—even when we do earnestly sing the refrain from the musical Rent that it is best to measure our lives in love.

I wish we genuinely could. How great would it be to live through life with such seasons, all defined by passion and affection? But human nature has such infinite capacity for both light and darkness, and for every kindness we come to know, there seems to be an equal unkindness to encounter. Any visit to Facebook with its steady display of humanity played out in our timelines shows an equal measure of fathomless love and blinding hate—of late: news of the Charlie Ebco massacre lying side by side with a linkbait story about a homeless woman meeting kindness in a fastfood joint. Plus a picture or two of cats being playful.

So we measure our lives in years, because love is often in short supply. There is great convenience, too, in cataloguing the unfolding of ourselves by the years we’ve managed to live through. Some of us do that by believing in the fitting ending of Decembers, with the New Year’s promise of being given a clean slate—and we mark these with resolutions to becoming better. Some of us believe in annual readings of horoscopes, in the mysterious pull on our fates by the stars or by Chinese animals. And some of us believe in taking stock of our days as they pass through patterns we seem to think our lives follow—the ebbs and lows, cycles of turbulences and triumphs: a map of sorts that takes into count both luck and the consistency of our personalities.

I do all of the above, because I figure there’s nothing to lose in subscribing to one or the other: all of these are just expressions of the human need for pattern-seeking in chaos anyway. And life is chaos. So we turn to calendars and zodiacs and psychology to wrest a semblance of control over the uncertainty of what’s to become of us. But mostly I measure my life by the years I still stay in Dumaguete, my nest, my comfort zone, my familiar shore.

A few weeks ago, I was having Christmas lunch with a bunch of colleagues, all of them good friends, in the early days of the holiday season. We feasted on buttered corncobs, pot roast, and magical roasted chicken floating gloriously in some sweet gelatinous thickness. Despite the specter of the rush the holidays engendered, it was a good day in Dumaguete, enough to put us all in good spirits. At one point, as the afternoon turned deeper, someone ultimately pulled out a bottle of white wine and a box of chocolate-flavored silvanas, which proved necessary indulgence for the seriousness of the talk that followed. One of us invariably turned the conversation towards the question of why we have stayed so far in this city. Because we have always been told that, given who we are, the world is our supposed oyster—and so why stay?

There was a flurry of responses to the question. “The world outside isn’t much better. There’s only new wallpaper somewhere else,” one of us said. “ “I like being my kind of fish in this perfect little pond,” another one of us said. True enough, when I make my own reflection, I could be honest enough to admit I find it utterly puzzling that I have not found it necessary to move on, to uproot the anchor, sail the rough seas, become a better sailor, and find a new beach to relax in. Isn’t that the narrative we all teach ourselves to follow? All our literature tells the hero of the story to go out to the world to make his mark. So, if you choose to stay, does that unmake you as the hero of your story? And yet I still remember what National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo once said in reply to the very same question: “Why do I stay in Dumaguete? I look at its shoreline and I know I’m home.” In many ways, I have come to adopt that line as my own answer. There are days when the questions are particularly heavy—but when I step into the Rizal Boulevard and I see the balance of life played out by the mix of blue sky, green seas, and the quaint promenade lined by Dumaguete’s so-called sugar houses, I always feel that I am living in an unexpressed answer to the question of why I stay.

When I stare into Tañon Strait, with the faint outlines of Cebu, Siquijor, and Bohol in the horizon, I realize that I could either see that blue faint line as either a prison or a gate. It is perspective that can become our ultimate salvation from the worries we throw ourselves into. Sometimes, when I am at a painful standstill or at crucial point in my life, when the cares of the world threaten to overwhelm, I do all that I can to remind myself of that single, most helpful word: “perspective.” “Perspective, Ian,” I tell myself. “Perspective.”

When the last year drew to a close, near the cusp of December 31st, I thought that perhaps this was the ultimate lesson I could wring from 2014’s troubled unfolding. “’Troubled,’ Ian?” I asked myself. “Call it a ‘corrective’ instead.”

But this was not a new insight. Not for me, nor for anyone else. It was something I had come to understand more last year as I went on from one “corrective” day to another. The great Carl Sagan, writing in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space in 1994, penned the best argument for this—and I was reminded of his immortal lines when it served as a fitting epilogue to last year’s run of the new Cosmos. In that book, Mr. Sagan considered the now-iconic photograph of our planet taken by Voyager 1 in 1990. From a distance of about 3.7 billion miles, the space probe captured our world as being barely the size of a pixel—just a tiny dot floating in the vast emptiness of space, caught in bands of scattered sunlight: “Look again at that dot,” he wrote. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

The past year crystallized my realization of several things. First, that just because one can doesn’t mean that one should. Second, that life is better lived the way good chefs run their kitchens: to clean up as one goes along. And third, taking my cue from Mr. Sagan, that the world does not revolve around me nor you, and like everything else, you and I are not indisposable.


Dumaguete is what it is: it can be home, or a destination. It can be a nurturing community, especially for artists, but it can also be cruel: it can choose to either love you back, or it can keep you out like the langyaw of legend. I guess it’s the spirit one brings into the place that finally decides one’s fate in it. And I realized that no place on earth, not even Dumaguete, owes anyone their happiness. It’s like asking the world to revolve around you. I have come to consider the rhythm of that world instead, and to learn to dance to its music.

Sometimes I still get unhappy about this place. But I always remember Edith Tiempo’s words, and I also remember that perhaps the only way to become happy, whether you stay or you go, is to measure everything, however you can, no matter how difficult it can be, in love.

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