The Fish

Nonfiction by | April 15, 2018

It’s a cold and cloudy Wednesday morning on this twenty-fourth day of January when I find myself sitting on this green chair, writing on a circular, wooden table of the school library. Beside my journal is a coffee that I bought straight out from the vending machine in front of me. Every day, I make it a routine to reserve a ten-peso coin in my pocket so I can pay for this drink. I suppose drinking coffee every morning has been my ritual. It’s what keeps me going these days: making my heart beat faster as it normally does; evoking emotions for every beating of it; and finally turning these emotions into words. So whenever I am lost for words, I only pause for a moment to sip this coffee of mine until the right words come along. It seems to me that it is the only thing now that keeps me writing my troubles out, so to speak.

The weather today has surprisingly turned into a gloomy one when nobody expected it as the sun has been shining brightly as ever since the last few days. I suppose life is akin to the weather: it glooms in an abruptly way just as when it has made you used to the sunny days. In this particular instance, however, I think about life and how I spend my every waking day with the same strict routines that I follow. I think about how people unconsciously forget what really matters in life because of “other things” they would rather immerse themselves into. I think about how our routines gradually consume us and divert our attention intensely focused toward worldly affairs and trivial matters. I think about the reality of life: that one day, all of these things surrounding me will vanish; that one day, I, too, shall die.

It happens every day that we wake up in the morning, take a warm bath, have some breakfast, drink a coffee, and drive or commute to school or work. We would attend to our classes, our appointments, or sometimes to our organizational meetings. We would then watch a film or a series if we have the time. We would talk excessively with friends about almost anything. We would laugh out loud and think of a good restaurant to have some meal together. We would go to our most desired coffee shop, read a book therein, or perhaps study. We would prepare for a scheduled presentation, or surf the net for how many hours. We would go home right after, have a good night sleep, and in the next day: repeat the same routine.

It happens that Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday all seem to follow the same path most of the time. It seems as if our entire life had been programmed to be in harmony to the same, continuous rhythm every day. Can we transcend this?

As we are living the mundanity of our lives, we are gradually absorbed into this way of thinking where our perception of everything around us becomes constant and typical. Everything seems to flow with the current. Everything is under our careful control. Nothing seems wrong, at least hopefully. And everything seems so orderly, systematically, and accordingly just as the way we expect them to be.

This absorption has become so efficient in fixing our perspective. The process too is so transparent that, without our consciousness, it has successfully placed authenticity, meaning, purpose, and death to the background. Because of this, we are no longer aware of them, nor perhaps even spare a minute to ponder upon them. Like the fish that is unable to recognize the water as it has become ordinary for it, we are living under the mundanity of our lives oblivious, deliberately or not, to the reality and value of life itself.

While we are trapped into this matrix, somewhere out there are people who have already made an abrupt escape—people who have woken up from the illusion that hid the true reality of life. I refer to these people as those who are suffering: those who are afflicted with illnesses, diseases; by war and genocide; depression, worry, and grief; those who have recently lost a loved one; and many others alike. More than that, somewhere out there is a father diagnosed of cancer and a son anxiously bothered of his old man’s condition.

Unexpected things always happen in an instant. It doesn’t remind you beforehand. It doesn’t inform you of its coming, nor does it even give you a warning sign just like when you are driving on a highway and a road undergoing repair is one kilometer ahead from your location. Just when you think everything is normal, things could change in a blink of an eye, disrupting your personal routine, reducing your driving pace.

It was on a Monday afternoon in the middle of a class discussion when, all of a sudden, I received a distress message from my eldest sister, telling me that our father has just been diagnosed of a suspected cancerous cyst in the kidney according to his doctor. I was in the middle of a recitation then when I received the message. My teacher kept on asking the class questions about a previous lesson of which I still could remember. I uttered an answer to my teacher and then I half saw the text message. I read it afterwards properly. Even then, I knew that something doesn’t feel right even though everything around me seems as usual as they are. I didn’t know how to react. All I could ever recall was the sudden blurring of my vision of my teacher, my classmates, the chairs, the Power Point, and my notebook.

I reached for my handkerchief inside my pocket to dab my eyes. Tears were already filling my eyes, I realized. I was captured by the moment. Even though my body was physically present in the classroom, I felt mentally, emotionally, and spiritually isolated from my classmates. I could not hear my teacher speaking as if all the noises had suddenly been muted. My eyes were fixed towards my teacher but I could not see her. It seemed as if my consciousness went to somewhere else, but I knew I was arrested by the moment—a moratorium amidst the mundanity of life.

All the memories suddenly flashed back to me like a new episode of a TV series reviewing the previous events before it begins. I thought about how, in my kindergarten days, my father would buy me a box of Cloud 9 chocolate every time he arrives home from work. I recalled how, during my early elementary days, I used to borrow his screw driver to enact Harry Potter casting a spell. I recalled how he used to spoil me with almost all the things that I wanted: from toys, shoes, guitars, drum set, clothes to cars. I thought of the times when he provided me with everything that I needed in school. I thought of the times how he supported me with my decisions and my choices in life. I thought of how often he would give me words of wisdom that would always soothe my heart. I thought of how during every meal, we would share our favorite fish that my mother would cook for us; we would cut it into half so that his would be the head part and mine the tail.

While my mind was mentally traveling, I pondered upon the idea of death—that death is the only thing certain in this life. I reflected upon how short life really is that in every passing minute, someone somewhere is dying. I reflected on the simultaneity of things: that while we are here in class listening to our teacher’s discussion in the comfort of our air conditioned room, someone else from somewhere else is suffering from an illness, from a loss of a loved one, from depression, from poverty, from war, and from many other unfortunate events. This parallelism of world events made me think that just because it isn’t happening here at this very place that I am currently sitting into, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all. What would seem so little to me, to anyone might be all.

All the people suffering in this world because of numerous reasons such as international disputes, politics, religion, terrorism, crimes, and even stretches out to the people afflicted with different kinds of disease such as brain tumors, cancers, dengue fevers, malarias: these are the people who have to pause in the rhythmic patterns of their lives, who have to drop whatever they are doing in order to attend to the crises at hand. All of these sufferings are what we normally hear on the news, from other people, and from the hospitals, yet all the same we do not lend an ear to them. All of these do not seem to matter to us. Why should we even care? Who are they to us anyway? We do not really understand something so deeply unless it finally happens to us or to our loved ones. We do not really value the true essence of life until an alarming situation comes forth. We do not really know how something truly feels until finally it knocks on our doors, disturbing the comfort of our lives.

Many would pity these people, but I say that this pity is misattributed. I say these people are lucky enough because life has given them a way out from their routines which have gradually made them forget the essential things in life—routines that have blinded them to the reality of life. A breakthrough in this so-called “everydayness” of our lives would make us value our existence even greater. It would make us rethink on the essentials in life: our loving relationships, our family and our ties with our relatives, our behaviors, our faith, our mistakes, our shortcomings, and the people we may have hurt or wronged. It would also make us reevaluate how we are living our lives, how hardly do we forgive others, how easily do we get angry over trivial reasons, and how tightly do we clutch on to our grudges. The possibility of death is an enough lesson for us to learn about the most important things in life that we wouldn’t probably learn in the four corners of our classrooms. Suddenly, I regained consciousness from my mental journey in one of Mitch Albom’s famous lines: “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” I then immediately told my seatmate that I won’t be able to come to class for the next subject. “I have to go now. I need to see my father.”

I drove on to where my father was on that Monday afternoon. I was driving really fast without minding the speed limit, recklessly beating a lot of red lights on the way. I did not even bother warming up the engine upon ignition anymore. I knew Papa would scold me had he known.

Somewhere in the traffic-laden roads of Davao City, however, there was one intersection where I was so close to traversing, but I was caught up by the red light the moment I was near. Abruptly, I stepped on to the break really hard and brought the car into a full stop. Annoyed and anxious, there was nothing else I could do but wait. So, I looked around instead and I saw a sticker of a fish in the car ahead of me. It was a simple fish, but beneath its existence is an underlying truth of which has rendered me in deep thought.

A fish’s natural habitat is the water. Once it is born, it does not need any “swimming lessons” like we humans normally do; rather, it just automatically learns how because that is its nature. It probably doesn’t have any idea at all that what it is doing is actually called “swimming” in human language; it just is. More so, the water is the fish’s safe haven. It goes around to it every day, swimming in its vastness. The fish probably does not recognize the water anymore because for all its life, it’s just there made available in its whole lifetime.

Because of this, I suppose the fish no longer acknowledges the value of the water because it has grown used to it every day. However, this recurring pattern in the fish’s everyday life reaches a point of cessation when it has been caught by the fisherman in his net. In that way, the fish wouldn’t have seen it coming. Once it is trapped into the fisherman’s net, it would desperately grasp for the water. It would try its best to reach for the water. But, when it is already too late for the fish to return to the water is the only time when it would regretfully realize the true value of the water that it had ignored for its whole lifetime. Sadly, there is no going back for it now.

Finally, it’s becoming quite chilly here in the school library. I reached for my cup of coffee but it was already empty. I am still very worried about my father’s condition and I guess this would be the only thing that will occupy my mind throughout the day. I guess a short title would be most suitable for this essay—perhaps that one simple thing that struck me most during that Monday afternoon. It would be enough, I hope, as life as well is short-lived.

I suppose we have all been too hasty in trying to meet our academic and work-related deadlines, notwithstanding the fact that even our personal lives are inevitably subjected to it. Nevertheless, I must always keep in mind that I should not become the fish that has made used to the water so much that it has become transparent to its eyes; rather, I should learn to value the water even before I am caught into the fisherman’s net—a “not-yet” and also a “will-be.”

On that Monday afternoon, the sticker of the fish in the car ahead of me had slowly become smaller and smaller in sight. Loud horns from the cars at my back made me shiver, bringing my attention back on the road.

The green light came, and I drove on to see my father.


Ali K. Satol Jr. is an incoming fourth year student of Ateneo de Davao University (ADDU) with the course of Bachelor of Arts Major in English Language. He is born in Cotabato City and is currently living in Davao City to finish his studies. Ali is the incoming Internal Vice President of SALAM: The Ateneo Muslim Society, a Muslim student organization of ADDU. As an English Major, he is also a member of the Society of Ateneo Literature and English Majors (SALEM). His essay, “The Fish,” was written for the said subject and is one of the many essays in his collection called, “Of Truth and Memories.” The said piece won Ali his place in the small group of finalists for the World Youth Essay Competition (WYEC) 2018. He is now competing for the final round of the contest.

My San Pedro Street

Nonfiction by | March 11, 2018

For someone who was born outside, I defined Davao City as our destination for buying school supplies and watching movies. There were no decent cinemas where I came from. When I officially moved to Davao to pursue my university degree, way back in 2000, I found myself re-defining the city in a different way.

In 2012, I decided to document the city’s center, San Pedro Street. This project was inspired by academic papers by UP Mindanao professors: one on architectural landmarks by Architect Rowena Delgado, and another on the aspect of urban decay by Roberto Alabado III. Both were published in Banwa, the Multidisciplinary Journal of UP Mindanao. Their point was that since development was sprawling outside the city, the city’s center, where most architectural landmarks were located, was in danger of becoming overlooked and at worst forgotten.

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I asked, “Is San Pedro Street overlooked?” I also pondered on what would make people think about San Pedro. Back then, I was exploring street photography and its capacity to tell stories with just a photograph. I decided to take a creative adventure.

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Movements That Heal The Soul, Part 2

Nonfiction by | February 18, 2018

Photos by Louise Far

Saguiaran, Lanao del Sur.

Today is the third and last day of playing with children in this covered-court-turned-evacuation-center. Did the healing movement activities help the children? How?

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“I felt like giving up on the first day. The children were unbelievably energetic and could not keep still even for a moment,” says Kim. That’s interesting because Kim didn’t show she was struggling. She and the rest of the emergency pedagogy (EP) facilitators were calm the entire time and spoke quietly. They were not fazed when the children yell, hit each other, pull hair, or shove and continued to act as loving authorities to the children. This is how they earned the children’s respect, trust and admiration.

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Movements That Heal The Soul, Part 1

Nonfiction by | February 11, 2018

Saguiaran, Lanao del Sur.

Dance music blasts from a loudspeaker in the evacuation center at the edge of Marawi City. Children between five and fifteen years old sing and move along to the beat. Nobody among them smiles; they look like robots with blank faces and stiff movements. On stage, a woman speaks into a microphone. Based on her Meranao intonation, she sounds like she is asking the dancing children some questions. The sound of her voice in the microphone is grating to the ears. She follows up with more questions while the children continue to dance, perhaps thinking they would get some candies from her for their “performance.” There was none. Instead, three mascots appear on stage — a water droplet, a bar of soap, and a faucet. That’s when I learn it is International Hand Washing Day.

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If Words Can Talk (Part 2)

Nonfiction by | January 14, 2018

The Math teacher roughly grabbed Tommy by the sleeve.

“Who taught you this word?” she demanded.

“She did!” pointing at a playmate. “Dili gani ako!” the playmate countered and adamantly pointed her finger at another playmate. The other playmate quickly said no and pointed his finger at another. The finger pointing went on and on until it erupted into a quarrel amongst them. He did, she did, you did accusations were flying around for they forgot who started the game in the first place. It was the makings of politics. Cage rattler, players, finger pointing, displaced accountability, feigned ignorance, pointless hullabaloo, and lastly corrupted silence.

Selena was silent but she did not forget. She remembered it was Diana who started it but she bit her tongue to protect her friend. She shoved me down her own throat and kept mum while the interrogation was happening. That was the last time I heard her use the word that year. That was the end of ‘devirginized’ for the time being. After a few years, this sordid word will be revived which explained why the feeling of betrayal never went away. At that moment though, I still felt reduced into a thing in the past. A memory, relevant only when there is a need to dig up history and rummage through forgotten boxes. Finished. I have never felt so downgraded in my entire existence as a letter. So, I rebelled many times. Failed. Rebelled again. Failed some more. Rebelled even more. Wars were always waged because she mastered this foreign language.

She mastered it because she was repeatedly told that it was the gateway to success. It was supposedly her key to a lucrative life in the land where the pastures were believed to be greener.

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Nang Magmahal ang Makata

Nonfiction by | January 14, 2018

Pinasalamatan mo ang sarili nang sabihin kong itinanghal ang bago kong tula sa website ng mga bagong Pilipinong makata. Natawa ako sa hirit mong iyon. Sabi mo, kay husay mong inspirasyon. Hindi na ako nag tangka pang kumontra dahil inaasahan ko rin naman na hindi mo pa rin ako hahangaan. Igigiit mo pa rin na ikaw ang lumilikha ng mga imahe ng aking tula at hindi ako mismo.

Marahil tama ka. May kulang dalawang buwan pa lamang nang sinubukan kong gumawa ng mga tula. Ang isang buwan pa doon, hindi ako seryoso. Nitong huli ko na lang natutunang mahalin ang pagsusulat ng tula. Pero ikaw, matagal na. Matagal na kitang pinaghuhugutan ng inspirasyon. Mag-iisang taon na rin pala mula sa araw na iyon nang naramdaman kong may sariling buhay ang paghanga ko sa iyo; tuluy-tuloy na siyang lumikha ng kung anu-anong bagay, ng mga imahe hanggang sa makabuo ng mga tula. Hindi ko na nga ito napigilan hanggang napansin mong kawangis mo ang bawat nilikha ko. Tila mga pilas ng iyong pagkatao na pilit kong ginagawan ng isang disenyo sa puso ko. Hindi ko malaman ang mga reaksyon ng iyong mukha sa tuwing babasahin mo ang sarili mo sa aking mga katha. Siguro ay nasasabi mo, hindi ako ito o kaya hinuhusgahan kita ayon sa lente ko. Pwede ring tama, naisip ko. Baka tama rin ang mga hinala ko. Hindi ko lang talaga mahuli ang pagguhit ng ngiti sa iyong labi at ang ningas sa iyong mga mata na maaring magpakahulugan ng iyong galit o saya. Marahil ayaw mong makita ko ito. O di kaya ayaw mong makita ang mga isinusulat ko para sa iyo. Dahil hindi ka interesado at hindi mo nagugustuhan ang mga imaheng nabubuo ko. Gayunpaman, lahat ng ito ay haka-haka ko lamang at hindi ako sigurado kung tama.

Magaling ka kasi. Kung ikukumpara sa akin, may sampung taon ka nang nagsusulat. Hindi na rin ako magtataka kung kahanay na ng iyong pangalan si Maningning Miclat at Benilda Santos sa bata mong edad. Kahit hindi ka pa nakakapaglabas ng koleksyon ng tula mo, alam kong diyan sa utak mo, may nakasilid na pumpon ng tula na hango sa iba’t-ibang inspirasyon. Ang hindi ko lang matiyak ay kung kahit minsan ba sa mga nilikha mo ay tiningnan mo ang mukha ko at saka sinimulang sumulat. May sarili kang istilo at sabi mo nga, formalist ako at ikaw ang post-modernist. Kung ano man ang kaibahan nila, hindi ko pa rin masyadong alam. Dalawang buwan pa lang ako nagsusulat at imposibleng maintindihan ko ang mga ganitong teknikal na bagay lalo na kung magmumula sa isang beteranong manunulat na tulad mo. Pero sa totoo lang, kung maniniwala ka, sa loob ng maikling panahon na iyon, lalong lumalim ang mga imaheng nabubuo ko mula sa iyo. Ewan ko lang kung napapansin mo lalong lumalim ang pag-ibig ko.

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If Words Can Talk (Part 1)

Nonfiction by | January 7, 2018

I am D. Yes D, the sound you make when the tip of your tongue will come up to the roof of your mouth, just behind the upper teeth to block the airflow, in order to create a noise in your vocal cords that stops as quickly as how it started. My conception is almost similar to a terrible idea that was not supposed to be created but came to be regardless. A blocked idea that slipped through and efforts were even made to control its damage by taking it back while it was being released, hence the sound you make when you say my name is short. D – D – D. But, you know what they say about terrible ideas. They start in the wrong foot and end up in the right one later on. Or for a non-thinking man, you can just say D, the letter.

I was the first sound she created at 3 months. D – D – D. Unlike other babies, she swerved away from the usual vowel repertoire expected from her lot. She chose to utter a consonant that was not even first in the alphabet. I was the third one in the list, by order of usage for an English-speaking man. She was not, however, an English-speaking man. She was as brown as brown can get, a sun-kissed woman from war-torn Mindanao. Not many people know where Mindanao is. If one happens to have known about it, red flags immediately start flashing in their minds. Mindanao is not safe. Mindanao is the lair of Abu Sayyaf and Maute, extremists led by a dayu – an outsider, a foreigner who distorted the Muslim values for their own gain and used the locals as pawns; yet they were branded as Filipino terrorist groups. Further, the news would broadcast there is war raging in Mindanao between rebel insurgencies and the government army. Avoid Mindanao. Foreign ministers launched travel warnings to their citizens not to visit Mindanao. DO NOT TRAVEL TO MINDANAO, the circulation will say; forgetting that Mindanao is the largest composition of several chunks of the archipelago and the food basket of the Philippines.

She knew English was not her native tongue. The air that flowed in and out of her mouth was not expelled so extravagantly like how English speakers do. So wasteful. Her language preserved every breath, for air was life and life was precious. One does not exhaust something precious in one swing, at least not from where she is from.

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“I Will Revise”: On Davao Writers Workshop 2017

Nonfiction by | December 31, 2017

I was no stranger to writing workshops. My classmates and professors in our creative writing courses regularly held writing workshops that had my works in nonfiction, poetry, and fiction thoroughly reviewed. But only this year did I finally have the chance and guts to submit my works to weeklong workshops. For this year, Davao Writers Workshop 2017 was my second go at a workshop. The first had been in Ateneo de Davao University’s Summer Writers Workshop (ADDUSWW), which was held in the fourth week of May.

As any aspiring writer, I was thrilled that I was one of the chosen fifteen for this year’s batch of fellows. Since the announcement, I had counted down the days until November 30. Whenever I wasn’t too preoccupied with my thesis or anything else, I would be musing on the approaching event. What would be the guest panelist like? Who were the other fourteen fellows? Would they like my work or were they going to hack it to bits?

But fate had a different idea and threw in some last-minute hurdles for me to go through. First was a final exam on November 30 at in the morning. The second was another final exam on December 1 in the afternoon. I tried negotiating with my professors for a reschedule at both professors, but to no avail. The third and most exhausting hurdle was the travel to and fro the workshop venue, Ponce Suites (in Bajada) and my school (in Mintal) which was more or less 20 kilometers apart. I missed most of the opening ceremony on the first day, and the afternoon session the second day. Not hearing this year’s guest panelist’s keynote speech was my biggest regret. But I did not let that dampen my spirits for long.

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