The harmonica and the songs we sing
By Virginia Jasmin Pasalo
WE left the National Museum of Fine Art after listening to the keynote speeches of Eka Kurniawan and Resil Mojares. We had three hours till the next event, but my friends, Fe Mangahas and Lualhati Abreu, decided to proceed to University of Santo Tomas (UST), the venue of the culminating ceremony for the 85th PEN International Congress. The program did not specify the exact building where we were to go, and the organizing committee did not have a clue, so we decided to ask the guard, who told us that it may be one of those happening at the UST Alumni Center, the first building we passed after getting off at the P. Noval gate. To confirm, he took out a small sheet of paper where the events were listed, and he smiled, “That was the first building you passed, Ma’am.”
I walked ahead towards Pancakes with the intention to reserve a table for us, knowing that there are so many students competing for space.
“Slow down, I am eighty-two years old. People who walk fast are unhappy.”
“People who walk slow are most often tired, and not necessarily happy.”
I calibrated my steps. I was fascinated by the old trees, around a relatively wide space, wide in the context of campuses that are increasingly getting smaller to accommodate new buildings to cater to the increasing population of students. Where I stood, the skyline was visible framing at least three high-rise buildings dwarfing the old trees below them, a thin green line that could be mistaken for a tarpaulin announcing their readiness for occupancy. The panorama was a painting in the sky, imposing its own reality, declaring that the human mind, collectively, can create, and destroy itself, at the same time. I can sense the passing of things I value, accepting the inevitable movement of transitions, and the sad songs that I have to sing.
At Pancakes we were stalled by the computations of our bill. There was enough time to kill, so we gave the staff all the time to recalculate. After giving the staff a lecture on computations, we were off to the venue, passing old trees, whose leaves danced with the passing of the cold breeze, rendering a familiar sound of welcome and farewell, the same sound of the old banyan leaves I heard in Tel Aviv. Shalom. I responded with a soft whistle.
Manong Frankie Sionil threatened to compete with the Manila Symphony Orchestra. I was expecting he would sing, but he rummaged through his bag and took out a harmonica, a musical instrument invented in China that became a prominent instrument in Asian traditional music. He surprised everyone by playing “Auld Lang Syne”, a popular Scottish song, to bid farewell to the international delegation of the 85th PEN International Congress. At ninety-five, he could blow, his lungs had power. A passionate man, with a lot of fighting spirit, serenading a crowd, describing his place in the world, the one which he claimed and embraced, declaring “I deserve it!” Cameras clicked, hands clapped, a rousing applause.
I am happy he is happy and walks slowly and I hope he is not yet tired. I tried to hold back my tears, as Fe did. Fe was saying, “What was that? Was he saying something else with that song?” It is a feeling we shared, a sadness, felt and heard deeply, in the deepest reaches of our bones.
I heard the songs, and I also heard myself in the receding noise and the silence of the night. I had not done that in a long time, a very long time in fact that I could not even remember the last time. It was a feeling of missing, of gratitude, a taste of things tasted and lived once before, when nothing else mattered but the beauty of the falling leaves, the mist in my face, the slow walks. It did not matter how slowly I walk, or how fast, I just did not care. I was loving myself truly and freely, without thoughts of the past or worries about the future. It was possible to drop everything, and just live in the moment, sensing my skin in the dry air, talking to the flowers, blessing the trees, acknowledging the grit on the pavement I walk on, and loving the peculiarity of my own existence.
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