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A Bucket for the Fire

February 19, 2010

By Monina A. Mercado

First published in her column, It’s a Long Story,  in Graphic, March 4, 1970, p. 18

When a conventful of nuns in Makati, listening over the radio to the progress of the January 30 street battle, concluded that their enclave would probably be besieged next, they reportedly filled buckets of water to put out whatever fires are set in their house and exclusive school. That done, they then barricaded themselves in fearful prayer inside the chapel.

Their experience, told by the nuns themselves in all naivete to their students, has leaped over the convent walls, to be told and retold in varying degrees of amusement — but how very typical of prissy old maids — and yet also of saddened realization. What have these nuns to fear — they of supposedly great faith — unless they harbor some knowledge of a part in the provocation of this unrest? (For it seems that this detonation of protest in the streets has begun to flush out into the light those every time a demonstration is announced in the papers.)

There is little escape nowadays from the social talk that often begins thusly, O rebolusyon na ba? The poor little old man who weeds my garden asks the question each time. The air conditioning maintenance man could not resist the query. My favorite glamour girl asks the same question in between stirring the mahjong pichas. And the children ask when the television set is turned on demonstrations if they are burning Malacañang again — it so looked that way when the bonfires flared last January 30.

In these times, we react with what we are and what we have. Passports are ready for those who have the wherewithal — “For the sake of the children,” they always say. Those who do not have to stay have left or are definitely leaving. Some Jews who are in business are reportedly selling out and evacuating Forbes Park homes for Brooklyn and the Bronx. A group of European nuns is in the process of relinquishing the administration and management of their girls’ school to make their departure date in the early summer.

A move to the province is contemplated by those who have roots far from Manila or Central Luzon. There is suddenly some solace in a bucolic town one tolerates on a visit, but never as a home.

Last summer, we spent two weeks in a tiny town in Misamis Oriental where all the big paths that are called streets end in the sea, where colts and mares graze on the plaza green, where meals are malunggay plucked from the bush and fish scooped up from the sea down the street, where nighttime illumination comes from gas lamps and sometimes the moon — and suddenly those 14 days, which seemed a drag then, now mean a probable future, a feasible alternative.

Yes, we meet friends in the grocery stores, buying more than the week’s supply of canned necessities. “I do this each time a demonstration is scheduled,” admitted an old school friend. “I feel silly, selfish, mad even, but if something happens I will never forgive myself.”

There are some families who have stockpiled medicine and some who keep extra supply of water. There are even families with a blueprint for evacuation — a designated place where to gather, a signified place of refuge, some means of communication should telephone wires be cut and streets barricaded.

What grim landscapes and fearful imagination paints, what even more grim humor the uneasy mind conjures. “Swim now,” said someone in a Sunday swimming party. “Who knows there may even be no water to drink tomorrow.”

Meanwhile the pockets of reasonable reaction, being undramatic, could slip by unnoticed and unappreciated. Some schools have suspended classes for teach-ins, some sort of one-two-three primer on issues of the day — “So that,” one professor said grimly, “if our students are clobbered on the head or hit by stray bullets, they’ll know why and what for.”

Other groups have taken up the teach-in — there are now teach-ins for parents, for neighborhood associations, even counter-teach-ins, I hear, for Central Luzon peasants to be conducted by college boys from Catholic schools. And then there are talkins — over the phone, across the fence, at dinner parties, in buses and beauty parlors. We are suddenly un-shy and voluble, the words and phrases springing at last with discovered meanings — “alternative for existing leadership,” “textbook for anarchy,” “the pressure of the silent majority,” “non-violence as a ploy for public sympathy,” “the Maoist line in Philippine context” and so on. We are reading, asking, watching. We are plucking the stranger’s sleeve to ask for his word, touching the young one’s hand to understand his pulse and hesitating here to restrain him.

Worrying and hoping, praising and criticizing, running away or staying put, we are at last involved. We are thinking and caring. And this could be, after all, our bucket of water to match whatever fires.#

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