No dress rehearsals
THINKING SPOT - Bianca Locsin (The Philippine Star) - July 21, 2013 - 12:00am

We only get one shot to make an impression, no run-throughs to figure out what does and doesn’t work, just the actual show.

Sitting on the train to Hudson, a small city named after the gun-metal gray river unfurling outside my window, heading from one de facto law school reunion to another — from the rollicking wedding of someone I had bonded with over our dissident fathers and a third world country to return to, to a weekend away with a best friend, I remembered a series of paintings by Thomas Cole, founder, funny enough, of the Hudson River School.   

The Voyage of Life depicts in four paintings man’s emergence into Childhood, the halcyon days of Youth, the wing and a prayer days of Manhood and the gentle glide into Old Age.  At different points in my 30s I have remembered, specifically, the third painting, “Manhood,” and its image of a man standing in a boat, hands clasped tightly in prayer, as he is swept into the shoals of adult life.  The image echoed in my mind as I pursued an early career in law and dealt with an earlier-than-expected return to Asia. The image resonates still. 

It was good to see my former classmates, to embrace them and smile and laugh at their stories.  Ten years out from the day we were told by our dean that the world was our oyster (not true) and by a much more grounded professor that we would forget everything we learned in the classroom but never the friendships we would make (very true), there was no real marked difference in how each of us looked, though we certainly differed in where we had landed.  We had all started in the same place — within the same narrow halls, and with roughly the same level of legal knowledge. And here we all were, in the thick of the consequences of the decisions we had made in those heady days when we thought we could, with the force of certain ambition, change the world or, at the very least, our allotted portions of it.

Some had left big law.  Some were waist-deep in it.  Some were running or working for non-profits. Some had gone into government or academia. Some were on their second or even fourth jobs.  Some were on their first child or contemplating their first real long-term commitment, be that with a person or a puppy. Most had managed to establish at least the rudiments of a conventional life.  Others, it seemed, including myself, were still flogging our dead horses.

One of my favorite poets said something along the lines of there being no dress rehearsals to one’s life.  “The sorry fact is,” WisÅ‚awa Szymborska wrote in the poem “Nothing Twice” (from Calling Out to Yeti,) “that we arrive here improvised and leave without a chance to practice / Even if there is no one dumber, If you’re the planet’s biggest dunce, / You can’t repeat the class in the summer: this course is only offered once.”

So, it seems, we only get one shot to make an impression, no run-throughs to figure out what does and doesn’t work, just the actual show. I never was one for thinking on my feet or improvisation. I’m much too Catholic convent school-educated for that.  Had I been granted one dry run, I am sure I would have navigated my life with more assurance and precision, run through it at a brisk unerring clip, rather than the sprint, stumble and stagger I actually managed. 

For of my time on the planet, there’s been half a dozen countries lived in, time on the lam in various institutions, a persistent struggle to form a coherent working life, a banging of my head against countless walls in an effort to unblock the writer inside, a half a dozen fad diets tried, a couple of hundred miles run and a long journey, to rid myself of demons, so far towards the edge of the earth; I imagined, when I sat on that stump in the New Mexico desert, I was breathing in the scent of not-so-distant stars.  No coherence, just a life, like any other, imperfect and muddled through.

I imagine had each of us had time to scratch beneath all the brilliant surface impressions we were reflecting off of each other, we would have discovered a similar decade’s worth of fragile wins and actual losses, seemingly interminable periods of despair and moments of sudden serendipity and palpable grace, a series of wrong turns and a few precious lucky breaks.  And where we would all end up another decade or two from those few days we all met again, whether all our current bets would pay off, none of us could know.  That would have to be the rest of the show and we were all going to have to make it up as we went along.


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