Gorrindo- ESSAYS

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  • The Ubiquitous

    John Michael Gorrindo

    “Death is so ubiquitous, it is taken for granted, but looms in the closet like the bogey-man who only comes out at night when a person at sleep is sent to dreaming,” he thought.

    “Maybe that is why we take it so lightly in conversation.  What is there to say about it?  It happens to all, and ends all. Why give the subject light of day? But then that same attitude infects our thinking about life as well.  That is the problem.”  He was feeling clearer about it all now.

    ”Yes, it creeps into the finer patches, and leaves a tiny, black spot that starts living off its host, growing like a cancer, one cell division at a time. There’s no accounting for it.  It’s just what happens,” he concluded.

    “That’s what’s happening to the things everyone says they love- like freedom; like love; like the love of freedom.”  He began to think of things held sacred.  “Death is dissolution, and all things clear and true fragment in disintegration, then scatter like incomplete thoughts tossed to the wind.”

    “It is completely unclear, now.  What is love anyway; what is freedom?  There is still a place at the table reserved for the philosopher, but he has not shown up.  Somehow, he lost his way and everyone who was counting on him to make things more clear is left wanting; left to depend on their own inadequate ability to sort things out. It was always the imam or pastor or priest or rabbi or monk who came rushing in to take his place. And they hadn’t always been so invited.”  His left eye twitched and fluttered involuntarily.

    “I remember my son telling me he envied the fact I didn’t give a damn about what the others around me were feeling or thinking; that I simply followed my own instincts to do and say what I felt like doing or saying.  Somehow, that was a mark of freedom to him.  But I cannot call that freedom.  That is simply impulse unchecked.  The consequences are indeterminate, but rarely much good comes of it.”  He looked down at his open palms.

    “And is that death’s way of infecting me?  Does that little black spot on my heart beckon me to speak and behave without reservation?”  The view from the third story veranda allowed him to look beyond the city and out to the sea.

    “The winds blow up the white caps and they refresh me as seen from above and at a distance,” he considered.  “But if I were to dive in there alone, I would be up to my neck and surely drown, even though I have always been a good swimmer.”  The breeze tousled his unruly hair and turned the sweatiness on his neck to a cool sheen.

    “For years, I’ve heard so little that is intelligent.  All this patter of speech I hear everywhere- it’s all for show; all for conquering the moment; all in an effort to one-up on the other guy; all for showing invincibility in the light of loss; all for naught.”  His palms became fists. “In the end, we are left alone with our thoughts, and if we are lucky, the conversation we have had to forbear has not created yet another black dot on things.”  He knew that was wishing for too much.  His hands suddenly went limp.

    His mind turned to other things, or so it seemed. The neighborhood children were smiling gems, he thought; sources of unfiltered light; inexperienced souls shining forth like little beacons of delight on two legs with gleaming teeth, and booming, happy voices. Their speech consisted of only hellos, how-are-yous, and then quickly turned to laughter. They appeared and disappeared so rapidly from steep stairways leading up to their homes and then out onto the dirty alley that is was hard to tell if they were apparitions or real life and blood.

    Their older sisters kept to themselves, sometimes peering furtively from the protection of second story porches. Their older brothers of course were haunted with the doom of growing older and having to take on manhood.  As with most young men, they were unprepared.  The older brothers weren’t to be seen- at least during day light hours.  At night, the motor bikes revved their engines, and that was the extent of the young men’s preferred mode of expression outside of the short-clipped code they used to signal each other before taking off in a rush for their downtown haunts, two to a bike.

    These young men were bent on speaking through their agents- a motor bike’s engine or the explosion of homemade firecrackers.  It used to be that the boom from lighting the trapped vapors of a kerosene-soaked rag stuffed into a long bamboo tube sufficed.  But now that gunpowder was freely available, they had put the traditional bamboo canon to rest. 

    Then there was the preoccupation with another kind of youthful thunder- outdoor sound systems blaring a deadly report as accompanying almost any imaginable celebration. And he remembered sharp insight that came from the mouths of intelligent people better than just about anything.  His memory was not so good, but for pearls of wisdom, he latched on for eternity. On a remote island he once knew a teacher who told him, “These loud sound systems the young men are so enamored with, that is the sign of a traditional culture in transition.”

    Traditional cultures were not anything if only doomed.  The concussive waves of sound that shook his third story concrete apartment drove that home like a hammer does a nail in a coffin.

    But there was no new education to take the place of the old ways.  No true education- only the use of electronic and mechanical devices. You can’t keep the boys down on the farm anymore.  The old stories of past generations were now forgotten; the old remedies found in the leaves and roots of tropical trees now disbanded.  The trees were now indistinguishable, one species from another.
    But this was not about romance for things gone by, he thought.  No, this was about mourning the clean cut with things that once mattered, and all the learning that comes with knowing what truly was and once held dear- even sacred.

    He knew that what he valued was continuity- and some sense of syncretizing the past with the present.  Perhaps he was too attached to his own values.  Or maybe it was just he had values held dear at all.  He remembered with bitterness how he felt those many years ago when an older man and mentor he knew and respected revealed in his drunkenness one day that “there was nothing sacred anymore.”  What was most bitter to contemplate was that maybe this man was just telling the truth, not just speaking his own opinion on things.  It was very easy to confuse the two.  This much he knew, and he fell victim to the confusion too regularly to feel comfortable with his own thinking. 

    “The mind is a treacherous instrument,” he thought.

    Slash and burn was what the world was coming to. Across the archipelago the trees were falling and palm oil plantations of enormous size being put in their place.  Oil was now a hundred dollars a barrel, and the end of spiraling prices were no where to be seen.  Palm oil- the new bio-fuel- was seen as the substitute and answer to the problem. Dead zones were beginning to grow with alarming rates in the coastal areas.  The sea was filled with human raptors scooping up every available fish.  The human populations on land continued to grow at unsustainable rates.  Deforestation had blighted the land and when it rained hard, there was always the fear of floods and mudslides. There seemed no end to the problems of mankind.

    His eyes lifted from their downward stare and once again looked out towards the sea.  There was still enough oxygen to breathe; still clear blue skies and a well-defined horizon where the sky met the ocean waters. Clouds in brilliant formation swiftly moved in accordance to the wind.  The laws of nature still prevailed.  The islands’ profiles off the coast were striking, and the one volcanic island stood tall as ever, its peak shrouded in vapor as always. From what he understood, there still existed an undisturbed habitat supporting families of black macaque monkeys far up the flanks of the volcano.  That gave him pause long enough to take a deep breath and regain himself.

    It was hard to imagine anything pure left but one’s innate ability to sense one’s surroundings, he thought.  Some poets had declared nature a veil and the senses just caverns in the human skull that allowed a chimera to enter the soul.  It was the human imagination that mattered most. But he couldn’t believe that anymore.  He trusted his senses too much to believe it anymore.  His senses seemed the only thing left that worked

    His trips downtown were always taken by foot, and fraught with obstacles.  The holes in the sidewalks revealed deep drainage pits, and at night, one had to watch every step.  It was just one more good reason why people sauntered when they walked.  Just a month ago a young tourist had taken the sidewalks too quickly and had fallen in a gaping hole, breaking his leg. Westerners were always in a hurry, even when it was uncalled for.

    He had mastered monitoring the holes, but the motorbikes were of greater danger, especially when crossing the street.  But the sidewalks were no safer.  When traffic congested, motor bikes would leap up off the black top and try to end run the endless string of blue microlets by traveling along the sidewalks, expecting all pedestrians to gingerly step aside. They beeped their horns and stared blankly ahead as if the rest of the world did not exist.  It rankled him.  He felt like reaching out and ripping them from their seats and slamming them to the pavement.  It seemed all too plausible a response for he was twice their size to a man.  Biting his lip had become a new habit of survival, and it had saved him more than once from an ugly confrontation.

    Being a foreigner in an emerging nation was a knife that cut along many intersecting axes.