Verses and values for life

MY last piece on reaching back to one’s roots while growing new fruits as a young Filipino in America seems to have started a discussion on values. In this regard, throughout my life, I have picked up gems of wisdom from poets and learned men. I call them verses and values for life.

As a small boy, bothered that I wasn’t born tall, handsome and rich like some of my schoolmates, I came upon a children’s poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Mountain and the Squirrel. The two had a quarrel, with the mountain calling the squirrel a “little prig.” The squirrel’s response helped me overcome my feelings of inadequacy, reassuring me that I also had a place in the sun:

But all sorts of things and weather must be taken in together
To make up a year and a sphere.

And I think it no disgrace to occupy my place…
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut.

Another priceless lesson that I learned in my childhood was from a poem by William Edward Hickson. It was about overcoming failure:

‘Tis a lesson you should heed: try, try again;

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Then your courage should appear; for if you will persevere
You will conquer, never fear. Try, try again.

Of course, I must admit that in periods of discouragement, I was sometimes tempted to adjust the verse a bit: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try a gun!
But for shoring up one’s hopes in moments of discouragement, the most helpful were these lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind:

Oh wind, if winter comes

Can spring be far behind?

The transition from high school to college can be a critical period in one’s life. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, translated from the original Persian by Edward FitzGerald, offered weird ideas – romantic, fatalistic, rebellious – that fed the fantasies of an adventurous young man trying to craft a career in Journalism:

Then to the lip of this poor earthen urn
I lean’d, the secret of my life to learn;
And lip to lip it murmur’d, while you live
Drink! – for once dead, you never shall return!
The moving finger writes and having writ
Moves on: nor all your piety nor wit
Can lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

Ironically, it was a visit to a watering hole for members of the press, Soban Singh’s Lion’s Inn, in downtown Manila, that jarred my giddy perspective. On the wall of the men’s room were lines that were obviously a parody of the Rubáiyát:

Step lightly and gently close the door,
For many an expensive meal
Lies buried beneath this floor.

Here was a den of veteran newsmen who needed to be reminded not to take themselves too seriously.

But I was already too far into my restlessness, like a car careening downhill without brakes. I soon found myself in trouble with the Prefect of Discipline of the University of Santo Tomas and had to drop out of college.

I had also begun to write screenplays under the tutelage of film director, Armando Garces, whose bohemian outlook was grist for my youthful recklessness. His favorite saying was: Live fast, die young, have a handsome corpse.

What followed was a period of immature braggadocio, even a feeling of immortality, fanned by a poem by William Ernest Henley, Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul!

In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody, but unbowed….
It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

Sadly, Manding suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed. In spite of a remarkable fighting spirit that enabled him to direct one last movie, his frail body finally gave up. Manding lived fast. And he died young. But he did not necessarily have a handsome corpse.

But even before Manding’s stroke, I had begun to feel that something was amiss. I felt like a boat out at sea that had lost its moorings. A poem by Thomas Gray made me pause and consider that, perhaps, I was wasting my life:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert hour.

At that time, I had been going steady with a girl who was my complete opposite: patient and reserved, while I was brash and short-tempered. She was also unimpressed with what I had become: an associate editor of a national magazine at 16, a screenplay writer and a movie assistant director at 17, and an advertising man and TV director in my early 20s. Yet something was lacking in my life.

It took lines from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha, to make me appreciate what I already had – but could lose:

As unto the bow, the cord is, so unto the man is woman;
Though she bends him, she obeys him;
Though she draws him, yet she follows;
Useless each without the other.

I asked for Gigi’s hand in marriage. That was almost 57 years ago. It was the best decision that I made in my life.

As I look back, now being almost 81, I do not regret having lived my life the way I did. But if I were to do it all over again, I would be guided by another Longfellow poem, A Psalm of Life:

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real, life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest
Was not spoken of the soul.

In my old age, I have also come to realize that there are other important things, such as love of country. In this regard, I am stirred by verses from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel:

Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d…
High though his titles,  proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power and pelf,
The wretch concentred all in self,
Living shall forfeit fair renown,
And doubly dying shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d and unsung!

In September 2011, for the Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora in Manila, Imelda Nicolas, chair of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, asked me to compose a response to A Gathering of Heroes/Pagbabalik ng mga Bayani, which I had written for the 3rd Global Filipino Networking Convention held in Cebu City in January 2005.

I end this reminiscence with the final lines from my own poem, We Hear Our Motherland Calling:

When age sets in and health has gone
And stripped our spirits bare;
We know that you will welcome us
Though no one else will care.
And in the winter of our lives,
When mournful bells will ring,
The Philippines will always be
Our summer and our spring.

* * *

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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