Friday, June 08, 2007

The dharma of crossing the street

My favorite English teacher back in high school would often remind us to begin any composition with a knock out opening sentence or a few crafty lines. Something that would entice readers to move on to the next few paragraphs. Excellent writers, according to her, could do this while describing the setting in one smooth stroke, thus hitting two birds with one stone so to speak. And then she'd start reciting the opening lines of Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado. "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge." But that is a topic for another story.

It was my third year in college. Late for my early morning class, as usual, I was rushing with this throng to cross a major road somewhere in Quezon City, near the university. Pedestrian overpasses were still a thing of the future back then. It was just the good old white stripes on concrete, marking where people could supposedly cross the street. But in Manila during those times, as it is now, drivers suffer from serious "motion sickness". Once they step on the gas and their vehicles begin to move, they are quickly engrossed with the sensation of movement, short-term memory loss sets in, and they forget that their cars, jeepneys, or buses ever had a contraption called a "break". So pedestrian lanes are just decorations, something to disturb the monotony of urban grayness.

Anyway, there I was crossing the street when a woman cut across my path and sprinted to do the same to this jeepney that stopped right in front of us. At that instant, no more than a blink of an eye, another jeepney made a dash next to the one directly in front of me and hit the woman head on. The other vehicle was blocking my view so I didn't see anything. But I distinctly heard the woman's cry of pain as a crowd started to gather around her. Since then, I developed a fearful respect for roads especially busy ones. For some time after that experience, it bordered on phobia, and I had to find other people to shield me (unknown to them) whenever I cross the street. Good thing some city governments have put up more overhead walkways recently, or I'd still be having trouble getting around the metropolis.

The other day, I was trying to cross a two-lane road near my place of work. As usual, I was having trouble finding the right moment to do so with all these vehicles rushing to take people to the malls or to their homes. So I took a pause right there on this island in the middle of the road, letting other people pass me by. It was at that moment that I became fully aware of this "flow" on the road, with all these passing vehicles. It was like finding the essence of something. And I thought then that crossing the street involved processes similar to those expounded in this new theory of learning (theory of u) that we were trying to explain to participants in a workshop on organizational learning. It involved taking that pause, suspending one's judgment, sensing, orienting yourself to the emerging understanding of the ever-changing situation, and acting with the swiftness and agility of a samurai warrior. The depth of the silence and understanding before the action determine the latter's decisiveness and appropriateness.

And so it is with writing, as it is with life.

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