Where One Learns to be Gentle

(This article appeared on the December 8-14 issue of the Dumaguete MetroPost, the first under my byline “Left-handed snake.” I hope to write more articles for this column)

Where One Learns to be Gentle

Apparently, people in Dumaguete were warned about me.

You see as a student, I was rather notorious for being an outspoken polemicist. Way back in high school in Kidapawan, North Cotabato, I openly declared my atheism in the Catholic school. In college, I questioned many of my teachers in the Ateneo de Davao, defied some of the school’s office holders, and ruined the reputations of many student politicians with criticism – I gained the partly affectionate, partly mocking moniker of “The Necessary Evil” among student circles. When I decided to move to Dumaguete to get an MA in Creative Writing, I had just succeeded in campaigning for the abolition of an old institution in the Ateneo de Davao’s student government.

 People here had good reason to get worried.

But the thing with polemics is that it only stings because there is something wrong there in the first place. This byline, which I have been using since high school, illustrates this best: “left-handed snake” sound so, well, sinister. Why does a snake, bad as it already is, have to be left-handed! And yet it only assumes that negativity in an enclosed system of signification where snakes are “evil” (Biblically influenced perhaps, or in binary opposition to “bunny”), and where being left handed is “not right” (all puns in this article are intended). But there is no such thing as a left-handed snake, and equally fictive is the negativity attached to it. Criticism minus the target is only observation, polemics minus convention simply suggestion.

And let’s face it, there are many in Dumaguete who are sitting ducks for the fangs of a poised polemicist. This City of Lazy People is an extremely human place, with all its charms and flaws. It is where time stands still, keeping old hearths alive with their familiar warmths, but also keeping the fires of archaic ills smoldering. This old place is home both to old friendships as well as to old feuds, an ancient well where ripples are elevated to tsunamis, and where the occasional frog sometimes thinks itself a whale in its ignorance of ocean. And those pedicab drivers!

But I’ve been here for over a year now, and far from wreaking iconoclastic havoc I’ve instead learned, among other things, to be gentle. From the historic war-ravaged town in Elsa Coscolluela’s play In My Father’s House, from which I first came to know Dumaguete, I’ve come to known the city more in that year, and without me realizing, I have learned the art of gentleness.

Dumaguete, it seems, is a place where one learns the power of quiet persuasion. Protesters against Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra were practically subjugated recently by the government’s shrewd decision to avoid conflict. Here, as in Thailand, wars are best fought with smiles and silences. The self conscious polemics represented by this blog’s byline has sometimes proven detrimental to my attempt to bring change: people are sometimes scared by it, and it has sown the seeds of suspicion where trust ought to be planted (the “keep your friends close” doctrine). Worse, the message ends up being ignored for the medium, a phenomenon clearly demonstrated by Senator Miriam Santiago (people love it when she speaks, but few people actually listen to what she says). In this column, therefore, I will do away with the pocking of the bush and immediately bring out the snake if I need to.

And Dumaguete is also where one learns to take things not just with a grain of salt but with a grain of sugar. There is no maturity in hating those who criticize you, and there is no wisdom in hating those you criticize. My own relationship with the MetroPost has reflected this: I sometimes amuse myself by ridiculing some of the not very well written articles here, but I always have fun reading the columns of two of my mentors, Cesar Ruiz Aquino (panelist during my Silliman Writers Workshop in 2012) and Dom Cimafranca (the first editor to ever get me published, back in Davao).

 The serpent beast Typhon in Greek Mythology, born to keep Zeus on his often-too-almighty toes, need not constantly wage war against Olympus. An occasional eruption from Mount Etna will do.

And most importantly, Dumaguete is where one learns to celebrate things. A new friend, a pay-raise, an award won (a new column!), Dumaguete seems to have the ambiance conducive to appreciation. On the minus side it does lead people to make storms in their teacups, but yes, it also fosters a good venue for critical thought, and the healthy bit of salt is always available around the corner. I’m still a non-believer, but there is wisdom in Ignatius Loyola’s dictum, “finding God in all things.” And in Dumaguete you find Him a lot, salt and sugar and all.

Indeed this old place seems to be where one learns the feat of heart’s control, what Edith Tiempo described in that famous poem as “utter sublimation,” to give sometimes painful love in a gentle, receivable form, that even the merest child can take it.

Dumaguete is not so much the City of Gentle People but the City where People learn to be Gentle.

Apparently, nobody warned me about this side of Dumaguete

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