Santorini on a Cloudy Day
A friend writes about escaping out her bedroom window when she was a little girl to wander the Arizona deserts under the spangled dark sky. Deserts are a powerful symbol for me. There is the story of the Little Prince who befriends a tiny bush with its one rose, an ingenious fox and finally a desert snake that bestows on him death and deliverance. I don’t remember how I came by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little fable but it came when my life was a desert and friendships the only mitigating element in the stark landscape.
I think I bought the brightly colored, thin paperback at the little bookstore, La Solidaridad, on United Nations Avenue in Manila. Like other Filipinos, I studied Philippine History in high school and undergraduate school but I don’t think I saw then the bookstore’s connection with the newspaper that Filipino expatriates in Barcelona published to attempt to improve the conditions in their home country. One of the contributors was Laong Laan aka Jose Protacio Rizal who seeing their propagandist movement making no headway decided to return to the islands only to meet martyrdom. To the end he believed in a peaceful solution but other Filipino reformers thought otherwise. Historians say Rizal’s death, like the murder of the three Filipino priests earlier, led to the Filipinos taking arms to fight for their freedom. It took 350 years to arouse them to a definitive armed conflict. But they did not figure on a bigger country in another hemisphere taking on a weakening Spain to expand her own territories and push the borders of her power beyond her shores. The Philippines became a colony of democracy-touting USA for another fifty years but became one of the first former colonies in Asia to attain their independence from Western powers.
The bookstore was started by writer, F. Sionil Jose, in 1965. I didn’t know about Sionil Jose either back then. I didn’t know that unlike other Filipino writers who in the upsurge of nationalism were writing in Pilipino he chose to write in his adopted language, English. In the 1960s I was groping in the desert for something though I didn’t know what it was I sought. I was naive beyond belief and my mind hopelessly unformed. Yet it knew more than I did. It recognized in that bookstore a kind of intellectual Shangri-la where light rained on the whole undefended landscape breathing life where nothing stirred. I encountered voices there that spoke to me of other ways of being, other ways of thinking and longing. They spoke of worlds larger than the cramped life I saw around me and I yearned for space and light.
Like F. Sionil Jose, without realizing what I was doing, I was practicing my English. The bookstore was a lifeline that became the rest of my life and English my passport to enter those other worlds. In subsequent years I ignored the culture of my birth while eagerly exploring the new worlds. Now the discrete worlds have merged into a boundless panorama where East and West, European and Asian, are simple counterpoints in the Ode of Joy we are all singing.
But the desert remains, a place of renewal, a reminder of space and possibilities where periodically I strip myself of accumulated encumbrances to see again what matters.