Thursday, January 1, 2004

Woman clutching her umbrella

She is the year-end image that continues to stay on my mind. She was on the national screen shortly before Christmas day. An elderly woman in a squatting position, looking down on her dead kin, then looking up in supplication to those around her. There she was, in her frail form, squeezing, wringing her folded umbrella with her hands. The mud outlines around her finger nails were dark enough for me to see. She had come from a muddy place where the earth cascaded like a river in a fit of rage, engulfing her village and taking away hundreds of lives, homes, farms, the scent of wild flowers and ripening fruit.

She could not muster a wail. Her weeping was faint, for that was all that her lungs could let out. But her hands looked strong and able, wrapped around her folded umbrella. These hands she used to dig earth, sow seeds, cut firewood, build fire, rock the hammock, bathe the babies and the beasts, move mountains. Suddenly mud and water poured on her village. Suddenly she was helpless and left with nothing. She lost the people that defined her home. She lost them to the mud.

Payong na sira-sira. It could not protect her from the rain. But the umbrella was all she could lean on now and use like a staff, a crutch. She wrung it like wet laundry as if this act, this movement could hasten the coming of tears and drain the pain from the deepest of her where she had stored her small dreams and village memories.

There is something about tattered umbrellas and people in distress who hold them folded and close to their chests that shake the boulders inside me. I once interviewed a bunch of long-term prison inmates for a couple of days and I remember this one prisoner who always came to the visiting hall with his wet umbrella. It was like his most priced possession.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the men who go around the city streets during the rainy season to repair umbrellas for a small sum. They carry with them skeletons of discarded umbrellas which are their source of spare parts. They shout, ``Gumagawang payong!’’

Englishmen who carry their brollies like a cane and walk with an understated swagger conjure up in me a different thing altogether. I think of English biscuits and tea.

What was it like for the woman with the umbrella? What was the picture like inside her, what was the state of her heart, the color of her grief, the sound of the rage in her soul? Was she angry? Did she wish to die, to have been carried away too, to that place where, they say, there is no more weeping and gnashing of teeth and where tears are wiped away forever from one’s eyes? What were the names of those she lost? How deep was the well from where she could draw strength to live on? Will her wounds ever heal? Will she be able to live through this and live long enough to see the trees grow once again and cover the landscape of her youth?

Yea, but does God listen to small people like her? Where is She/He? Where are the green pastures and flowing streams for people like her?

It has been a difficult year, the run-up to December especially, when the ``ber’’ months started closing down on us to announce happy days were ahead. We had hoped to see a glorious end to all the strife and the terror and the grief. But what did we get? Not just more of the same but worse than the same. The year was a let-down. I rage.

I try to write with hope as the music swells suddenly beside me (I rarely write with the music on) and as the lyrics rain down on the faint sound of the violin that seems so far away. ``Oooh, remember when it rained, I felt the ground and looked up high and called your name...In the water I remain...running down, running down...’’ It’s a prayer of yearning maybe.

But how apt, I thought. Better than ``Jingle Bells’’ which does not mean anything. ``O, Little Town of Bethlehem’’ is one of my favorite Christmas hymns, by the way, and I could not help thinking of the place, which I had visited in 1997. I read somewhere that the place was recently set apart with a wall to ward off terrorists, making it difficult for Palestinian Christians to cross over to attend services at the Church of the Nativity.

Many people are living on the edge. People are in search of epiphanies. So hold on just a little longer to the afterglow of the blessed season, savor just a little longer the Christmas sweetness that settled in your soul. We need to conserve the peace inside us to be convinced that there are lessons and meaning in everything that happened in the past year.

Now we brace ourselves for what is to come and allow ourselves a little righteous anger. The elections are just a few months away. Some look forward to them with hope for deliverance from this vale of tears, others look ahead with dread. The exercise could lead us farther to the edge.

But what the heck. Let us welcome the new year with great expectation. Let us look for manifestations of hope, catch the sparks that could grow big and set ablaze our hearts.
The shroud of grief will lift, and as the psalmist said, joy comes in the morning.


A blessed new year to everyone. And to all those who sent instant feedback via e-mail (and via snail mail too), thank you, whoever, wherever you are.