Two weeks ago, WordPress congratulated me on publishing my 99th post. Counting, it occurred to me that the next post would have to be special, important. 100th post I wrote in my pocketbook in all capital letters. My mind wandered over the possibilities — of sewing, French-speaking, of finally finishing War and Peace. Should I mention the soups I’ve been making? Snow that recently fell? So many things to be happy for, grateful for? But as this dialogue filtered in and out of my head, something of a different nature filled the gaps in between. And in stark contrast to my self-improving reality came this unalterable physical one: that is, the incredible loss of over thousands of people in the Philippines.
The first call came from my boyfriend’s mother. Was your family affected? she asked, worriedly. At the time, neither my mom nor I had heard. Examining the satellite images of Haiyan, hovering over the Philippines, only left everyone with sighs and furrowed brows.
Finally the text messages from my Tita arrived — and, relief. They were okay. Safe. Lola taking refuge in her room through the light storms, of their northern part of the country. I texted this, and repeated it, as more calls came in from my dad’s side of the family, and from friends.
Still, this is a relief that has its limitations. For who can ignore, on a basic human level, entire villages being wiped like a chalkboard? An estimated 13 million people affected, 5 of its millions only children. If we can count one sad blessing here, it has been the entire world collectively acknowledging the enormity of this very specific tragedy. The understanding that losing so many lives at once has absolutely no justice to it. And still, how important it is to try and offer a little respite regardless!
But let’s return to the Philippines, a country that deserves more recognition than a storm can define. The Philippines – birthplace of my mother. Home to my lola. Generations of my family and history rooted in its soil. And who has met a filipino without this kind of heritage? It is a country where the advantage of an education is still discernible. Where a liveliness, an irrepressible optimism, hums in the throats of its humblest residents. A place where everyone sings. They are good people. Generous people. In my mind, they inarguably make up the most hospitable country in the whole entire world.
Of course, no country is perfect. The Philippines is so rich with natural resources, it is a wonder why the divide between the very rich and the very poor only widens. And by “wonder,” I mean that it’s completely obvious corruption is a principal suspect. Vanity is also an issue (as it is everywhere). Power and preference are almost immediately given to lighter skin tones – an inclination that preserves an archaic sense of inequality throughout the population. And this is a shame, because on a superficial level, what is more beautiful than a skin that deeply reflects the sun?
Regardless, these faults do little to diminish the spirit of the nation. A nation that prays and loves equally. A country of wonderful people who will undoubtedly give you more than they own, and happily, cheerfully.
I remember a visit, two years ago. It led to a stop at Lingayen beach one cloudy day. Lola stayed in the car. The rest of us became absorbed into the crowd of villagers, pulling their day’s catch from the sea. A few giggling girls splashed for my camera. One boy grinned with his four front teeth before running and throwing an arm between his parents, his feet briefly lifting from the rope. We all took turns tugging. Our lips smiling so wide.
I tried to draw it once. Scenes from this happy day. It looked something like this:
I remember this because it struck me at the time, that this is a daily occurrence happening always, across the ocean. That, across the ocean, one fishing village collectively pulls a rope from the water to feed and make means for themselves – an assemblage of children with dreams, women with many passions and interests, men with distinct inclinations to live honestly, truthfully. Somehow it was familial. I felt home. And I missed them when I left.
Apart from my own family, I thought of Lingayen when Haiyan hit. (I think they must be safe, geographically, I do look upward and beg it). I thought of villages like theirs – so unassuming in their vibrancy – being hit and swept away in thunderous silence. And I think it is necessary to feel the profound sadness of this. The loss of this.
It is two weeks later, and in terms of news we’ve moved onto other disasters, also devastating. This solicits the sometime awful cliche, that life moves on. That, no one event defines the end for everybody. Haiyan by no means has spelled the end of the Philippines, and this is very good news. But the troubles have not gone away, and won’t for a very long time. It is an event that has forever transformed the psyche of the very young and the very old survivors of the storm, a history that will shape who they are in our future as a world. And this is why we must take care of them and each other, why we must motivate ourselves to live on fire.
I remember returning to the car that day at Lingayen beach, to find Lola propped up between the open passenger door and the edge her seat. Her toes were wiggling in the sand. Beneath my American exterior, the nativism of my grandmother beats my heart for me, and I am ashamed of every moment I take for granted. And I think about how much I love this country, the Philippines.