May You Live in Interesting Times!
(And may you write everything down!)
— Writers’ Blessing
(with my addition)
A few weeks ago I was cleaning out some shelves and closets and I suddenly found two neat stacks of notebooks I had hidden away. Journals! Thirty years of journals – they go back to 1986! (I am already wondering where the others may be!)
I have kept journals all my life, but not all the time – only when something interesting is going on, either in my own life or in the broader social-political world. My first two years in the Philippines, as a Peace Corps volunteer – a year in Mindoro, one in Zamboanga, summers in Culion in the Leper Colony – filled unnumbered notebooks. Then I returned to the U.S., married a Filipino graduate student, and went back to Manila and into the Marcos presidency and all the gulo that followed. I was teaching in Ateneo and my husband in U.P., so we were right there where lots of the action was.
I kept journals during political times – discussion groups, rallies, marches – and during Ateneo’s move towards social action. I spent part of a sabbatical working in the small Kaingin down behind the water works in Diliman – where I became really close to mothers who had lost children for lack of food and medical treatment, or to military abuse. I spent a lot of time sitting around, just being there with no agenda of my own – that was when I began to hear about the way someone’s IUD ruptured her uterus, or how one wife felt about her husband’s other family, or how a particularly frail child was fed only ahm (rice water) as a child because the mother had no milk and there was no money to buy any.
I kept journals during travels and guest teaching assignments: teaching in a university in Nigeria, spending afternoons talking with highly politicized students; a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand, where evenings were spent chatting about what it was like in Burma before the (Karenni) family fled, what the escape itself was like; or an emerging university in Cambodia, where the subject of conversation was mostly Pol Pot, or the University of Foreign Studies in Osaka, Japan, where students would make earnest efforts to explain Japanese culture. Interesting times indeed.
Actually when I googled this wish – “May you live in interesting times” – I had assumed some famous writer had said it. I discovered, though, that it was considered a curse, not the blessing I had thought. “Interesting times” suggests problems, I suppose, but it also suggests struggles, amazing actions, victories, progress. And when we wish this on someone who likes to write – and think and observe – it is a blessing. I am lucky: I have lived through interesting times, times that have been especially interesting in the Philippines. It has been fantastic just to be here, to be present, to be able to document and marvel at what people can do.
Since I have been a teacher all my life, what I know most about is the creativity, the ingeniousness, and the courage, of students and young people. When Ninoy Aquino announced his intention to return to the Philippines in 1983 to pressure the ‘sort of’ post martial law government to hold elections, overnight schools and campuses were decorated up with yellow ribbons tied on trees! (For those born too late, “Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree if you still want me” was already an old song, but newly in vogue to greet Ninoy. ) Ninoy, of course, was shot on arrival, changing the political landscape of the country forever.
Discussion groups blossomed on campuses, often featuring ‘secret’ showings of footage taken on Ninoy’s plane as the military took him off. This footage was taken by a Japanese journalist, so Japanese students were much in demand to translate on these pre-social media occasions. Then the marches, the rallies, the creative and diverse ways of pressuring the government. Although students and NPA were fighting the government in the mountains, Civil Society groups were largely nonviolent, following the Gandhian path; there were even hunger strikes and fasts.
And then the snap elections, the government cheating on results, walk-outs of official tabulators (who then had to be moved into safe houses) and People Power, sustained by student presence, day and night, student-solicitated food donations, etc.
Students and civil society brought down the Marcus government!! How many people get an opportunity like that?
We may well be headed into more interesting times. We can and probably should wish the new government well. But keep your notebooks handy!