Public Lives

Julia at 12

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Last Dec. 9, my granddaughter Julia turned 12. We held off celebrating her birthday in deference to the hundreds of children in Mindanao who had perished in the wake of Typhoon “Pablo.” But hearing about the young girl, Imee Sayson, who was fished out of the mud alive after being buried for 24 hours by the mudslide that entombed her village in New Bataan town, filled me with enough hope to revisit Julia’s birthday and view it in another light.

It is true: Nothing is as sturdy and as full of life as a grade school girl. When she was much younger, I wrote about Julia’s battle with asthma that sent her to the hospital almost every month. Watching her gasp for air always made me wish I could offer my own lungs as spare. She has outgrown all that. Today, she’s strong and quick, and bounces back from common colds and fevers as if these were nothing but pit stops for refueling. Yet there is about her, as well, a certain fragility that is both charming and reassuring. She’s starting to form a firm sense of self even as she remains extremely vulnerable to others’ opinion of her. This comes out as a willfulness that commands respect, yet easily melts into tears.

I draw great inspiration from seeing a young person like her acquire self-confidence and the capacity to take responsibility for what others need or fail to do. I am reassured by her work ethic and sense of empathy. I like it when she tells me she’s enjoying school, even when she seems less proud to show her report card for a grading period. I warn her against the perils of being grade-conscious, but she remains driven nonetheless. Only her abiding sense of humor, weird as it sometimes is, prevents her from taking herself too seriously. Perhaps the one thing that would make me sad is if she starts to sound cynical or resigned to the pointless cruelty of life.

“Children, of course,” the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick said in an interview, “begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism—and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong—and lucky—he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan…. He can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation.”

From the experience of seeming senselessness, Kubrick said, a strong child may be able to “shape something more enduring and sustaining.” I think that what Kubrick was trying to convey so vividly was exemplified by the attitude of another young girl from Compostela Valley who survived the deadly current of onrushing waters from the mountains by clinging to the body of a pig. She lost her entire family in this catastrophe, but, as she spoke to Korina Sanchez in a radio interview, there was no hint of self-pity in her words. She was happy to be alive, she said, and grateful that one of her teachers had taken her into her home. All that she looked forward to was the reopening of school.

“The most terrifying fact about the universe,” Kubrick summed up, “is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent. But if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death—however mutable man may be able to make them—our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

That light, in my view, is best supplied by the children around us. It is always with fresh eyes that they see the world. They are awed by the things we take for granted and amused by those that needlessly trouble us. We may often lament their lack of appreciation of the past, and their failure to forge their identity in the nation’s history. But we should not take this against them. In their own space and time, they will find their way to that textured past and draw their own meanings in the light of their own aspirations.

It is natural for parents to want to shape the contours of their children’s lives. But, when we look back at our attempts to create the young in our image, we are usually struck by how unnecessary a lot of these have been. I remember how every summer, I enlisted Julia for a course on drawing and painting, thinking this was what she needed when I noticed her budding interest in watercolors and pastels. After attending two such summer courses, she lost her taste for art. Years later, she joined a drawing club in school specializing in cartoons, and this led her to the infinite variety of styles available in the Internet. One day, after much cajoling, she showed me some of her work on her iPad. I was impressed by the way her drawings bore strong influences from Japanese manga and animé.

The other night, I asked if she wanted to watch the yearly lantern parade around the UP Diliman oval. She quickly said yes, expecting to be enchanted by the weird incarnations of the lantern that fine arts students create year after year. And she wasn’t disappointed. She asked if the fine arts people always won the best lantern award every year. “I like them,” she said, “they’re different.” Then, from out of the blue, she added thoughtfully, “I can see myself as an artist, but I also want to be a journalist like Mama.”

“You don’t have to make up your mind so soon,” I told her. “There’s plenty of time to do that.” As we walked home in the cool evening, I looked at this bright little girl beside me, my adorable granddaughter, and felt a surge of hope in my chest.

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