Penman No. 153: Elderly Expressions

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Penman for Monday, June 15, 2015

LAST WEEK’S piece on my memoir-writing workshops must have touched a few sympathetic nerves, because I got a number of messages from my fellow seniors asking about the next workshop, and if and how they could get into it. Sadly, I had to tell them that the workshops I mentioned were put together by special arrangement with Marily Orosa, squeezed into a very tight schedule (it’s insane, but I’m working on eight book projects all at the same time, in various stages of completion). It’s still possible that Marily could arrange another workshop for me before the year ends, but that depends on a lot of factors; if it happens, I’ll let you know.

If you’d like to work with me, the best thing to do would be to enroll for one of my graduate fiction or nonfiction workshop courses at the University of the Philippines, possibly as a non-degree student (which will make admission earlier, if you just want to take this one course); I’ll be teaching fiction writing, Fridays 4-7 pm, when I return from my sabbatical leave this August.

I’ve had quite a few senior students in these workshops—and by “senior” I don’t mean that they’re in their fourth year; more likely they’re in their 65th, and just went back to school for a rejuvenating dip in the waters of academia. In many places, they call this “continuing education,” and the good thing about having seniors in class is that not only do they get educated, but the rest of the class as well (myself included), especially the young ones who can benefit from the rich experiences of their elders.

The “oldies” may not always be up to speed as far as the latest and fanciest literary theories are concerned, but they’ll never lack for stories to tell, and you know that when they talk about things like loss or suffering, or bring up words like “rapture” or “redemption,” they’ve looked at life in the eye and kissed it full on the lips, and said some very sweet hellos and some very hard goodbyes.

This isn’t to say, of course, that older people have a monopoly of wisdom or expertise; some of my younger students have amazed me with both the gravity and the finesse of their work, displaying insights well beyond their years. (Let’s not forget that Jose Rizal wrote and published the Noli in his mid-twenties.) Conversely, I’ve seen mature students, mired in their prejudices and predispositions, unable to get beyond a dull and sightless monotone in their narratives.

But there’s clearly need for more room within our society for elderly expressions—and I don’t mean just more welfare-type laws to benefit seniors and such initiatives, although we’d certainly be happy if there were more support for the aged among us, especially the poor. I mean more coverage and exposure in the media and even in our literature of older characters and their concerns, going beyond stereotypes and easy expectations. (If you haven’t seen “The Second Most Exotic Marigold Hotel,” you should.)

We need more stories, poems, plays, movies, and articles with older Filipinos, their predicaments, and their achievements in focus—handled realistically, minus the aura we customarily accord to doting grandmothers and kindly uncles. Certainly they can be saintly, but seniors can also be just as vicious and as avaricious as people half their age, and why not? (I’m sure we’ve all heard of that filthy-rich aunt or neighbor who refuses to feed her househelp properly and puts a lock on the refrigerator.) Acknowledging people’s weaknesses as well as their strengths is acknowledging the diversity and individuality of humanity, which is incumbent upon every writer to do.

For the past many years, in my undergraduate literature classes (and yes, I’ve always insisted on teaching at least one undergraduate class every semester, so our freshmen and sophomores can know what’s it like to be taught by a senior professor, like I did in my time), I’ve taken up two poems that deal with aspects of aging. One of them is “Stepping Westward” by the late Denise Levertov (a mentor of my friend Fidelito Cortes when he was at Stanford). The poem begins thus:

What is green in me / darkens, muscadine. / If woman is inconstant, / good, I am faithful to / ebb and flow, I fall / in season and now / is a time of ripening.

Here, the speaker or the persona asserts her pride in and her comfortability with her advancing years, likening it to the maturing of good wine (muscadine). She has learned to accept—indeed to embrace—the inevitability of aging and death, as a fruit falls off its stem when it ripens. She also fiercely reserves her right to be inconstant and unpredictable, to change her mind if and when she wants to (Angela Manalang Gloria’s sonnet “Change” provides another terrific variation on this theme). She declares that

There is no savor / more sweet, more salt / than to be glad to be / what, woman, / and who, myself.

The poem closes with a wonderful image of life as a basket of bread to be carried—yes, a burden, but also a blessing to be eaten from.

The other poem is a local one, by Merlie Alunan, and is always a hit in class because of a theme that’s practically become taboo in our conservative society: not just female sexuality, but desire in older and unglamorous women (ie, older than Anne Curtis and Solenn Heussaf). The poem is “Young Man in a Jeepney,” which deals with a typical working woman, probably a housewife in her forties or fifties, who takes a jeepney ride home, clutching her bag to her chest, only to find herself seated beside a sweaty young man. The contact, however innocent, stirs up an ancient longing in her:

“Heat,” I mutter. “It melts / the very bones,” feeling / as I say this, inside me /awakening sweet April.

The unsuspecting young man gets off the jeepney and life goes on:

I do not watch you turn / the corner to the sudden dusk / —but I smile to savor /my sin in secret.

So what is that “sin,” I ask my students, and why does she call it so? Is it, indeed, a sin for a respectable and somewhat dowdy matron—and decidedly one of the lower class, the kind who would not have boy toys or affairs with their amigas’ husbands—to feel desire?

Discussions like these remind us that while many things seems to get simpler with age, both by choice and by necessity, human complexity itself doesn’t diminish over time.

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